November 7, 2010
What's an executioner to do?
Demand for sodium thiopental is exceeding supply. Why is this important? Because sodium thiopental, a fast-acting barbiturate sedative that induces a deep, comalike unconsciousness, is one of the three drugs used for execution by lethal injection by states and the federal government. The others are pancuronium bromide (a muscle paralytic) and potassium chloride (a salt that causes cardiac arrest and rapid death). Out of concern that pancuronium bromide creates a risk that the inmate will suffer excruciating pain before death occurs while masking any outside signs of distress, several states, including Ohio, have moved from the three-drug protocol to relying solely on sodium thiopental for executions by lethal injection.
According to some published reports, the only state that has sufficient quantities of sodium thiopental is Texas. Now, why doesn't that surprise me. Other states are facing the possibility of delaying executions. Why the national shortage? According to Ohio is running out of execution drug, (Columbus Dispatch, Nov. 5, 2010):
The problem is a result of a supply shortage from the sole U.S. manufacturer of thiopental sodium, Hospira Inc. of Lake Forest, Ill. The company said it doesn't expect to be able to resume production until the first quarter of next year because of a shortage from a supplier of raw material.
Further, Hospira wrote to Ohio and all other states, objecting to the use of the drug for executions. The company said its product is intended to "improve or save lives," not to take them.
Looking for alternative sources, some states are trying to import sodium thiopental from a British manufacturer. However, Reprieve, a London-based human rights group opposed to the death penalty, is trying to stop the drug's export to the US. Reprieve recently filed a lawsuit in London in an attempt to force the UK government to ban the export of sodium thiopental if intended for use in executions. See Suit Targets Execution Drug (WSJ, Nov. 3, 2010) for details.
Hat tip to BCLL's Julie Sandlin. [JH]