Drug shortage holds up some executions

  • Mon Sep 27th, 2010 8:01pm
  • News

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Some executions in the U.S. have been put on hold because of a shortage of one of the drugs used in lethal injections from coast to coast.

Several of the 35 states that rely on lethal injection are either scrambling to find sodium thiopental — an anesthetic that renders the condemned inmate unconscious — or considering using another drug. But both routes are strewn with legal or ethical roadblocks.

The shortage delayed an Oklahoma execution last month and led Kentucky’s governor to postpone the signing of death warrants for two inmates. Arizona is trying to get its hands on the drug in time for its next execution, in late October.

California, with an inmate set to die Thursday night, said the shortage will force it to stop executions after Sept. 30.

The sole U.S. manufacturer, Hospira Inc. of Lake Forest, Ill., has blamed the shortage on unspecified problems with its raw-material suppliers and said new batches of sodium thiopental will not be available until January at the earliest.

Nine states have a total of 17 executions scheduled between now and the end of January, including Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas. Brandon Joseph Rhode was put to death Monday night by lethal injection in Georgia for three killings.

Washington state executed a convicted killer, Cal Colburn Brown, by lethal injection Sept. 10. It was the state’s first since 2001.

“We are working to get (the drug) back onto the market for our customers as soon as possible,” Hospira spokesman Dan Rosenberg said. Hospira also makes the two other chemicals used in lethal injections.

Sodium thiopental is a barbiturate, used primarily to anesthetize surgical patients and induce medical comas. It is also used to help terminally ill people commit suicide and sometimes to euthanize animals.

Thirty-three of the states that have lethal injection employ the three-drug combination that was created in the 1970s: First, sodium thiopental is given by syringe to put the inmate to sleep. Then two other drugs are administered: pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes muscles, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.

Washington state and Ohio use just one drug to carry out executions: a single, extra-large dose of sodium thiopental.

Hospira has blamed the shortage on “raw-material supplier issues” since spring, first promising availability in July, then October, then early 2011. The company has refused to elaborate on the problem. But according to a letter obtained by the Associated Press from the Kentucky governor’s office, Hospira told state officials that it lost its sole supplier of the drug’s active ingredient and was trying to find a new one.

As for the possibility of obtaining the drug elsewhere, the Food and Drug Administration said there are no FDA-approved manufacturers of sodium thiopental overseas.