Today's New York Times reports, "Death Row Improvises, Lacking Lethal Mix," by Rick Lyman. Here's an extended excerpt from the beginning:
The decision by the Missouri Supreme Court to allow propofol, the same powerful anesthetic that caused the death of Michael Jackson, to be used in executions — coming at a time when Texas, Ohio, Arkansas and other states are scrambling to come up with a new drug for their own lethal injections — is raising new questions about how the death penalty will be carried out.
“The bottom line is no matter what drugs they come up with, despite every avenue these states have pursued, every drug they have investigated has met a dead end,” said Deborah Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School who studies execution methods and the death penalty. “This affects every single execution in the country. It just stalls everything, stalls the process.”
With manufacturers now refusing to supply corrections departments with the drugs they had been using for executions, some states, like Georgia, have been resorting to obtaining drugs from unregulated compounding pharmacies — specialty drugmakers — which death penalty opponents say lack the proper quality control. Other states, as they run low on their old stock of drugs and are unable to replace them, are turning to new, untried methods like propofol or simply announcing that they are searching for a solution.
In the beginning, it was relatively simple and uniform. Several dozen states adopted the three-drug cocktail for executions first used by Texas three decades ago — a sedative (usually sodium thiopental) was mixed with a paralytic agent (pancuronium bromide) followed by a drug inducing cardiac arrest (potassium chloride). The idea was to provide a quick, painless method to replace the electric chair, gas chamber and firing squad.
But a shortage of pancuronium bromide a few years ago led some states to switch to a single-drug method, often simply administering enough sodium thiopental to cause death. The manufacturer of that drug, however, the Illinois-based Hospira, stopped providing it to corrections departments after workers at its Italian plant, and European officials, objected to the use of the drug for executions.
Many state corrections departments switched to pentobarbital, another powerful sedative, in their three-drug cocktail. But when its manufacturer, the Danish-based Lundbeck, learned that its product was being used in death penalty cases, it refused to sell any more to corrections departments and insisted that its American distributors also refuse to supply the drug.
Then, just last month, a federal judge in Washington ruled that sodium thiopental could not be imported into the country at all, because it had never been approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration. (It had been introduced before such F.D.A. approvals began.)
This has left states unsure of what to do when their stockpiles run out — use some other drug like propofol, buy versions of sodium thiopental or pentobarbital from an unregulated compounding pharmacy, or abandon lethal injections altogether and return to some other form of capital punishment.
"States Scramble to Find New Ways to Kill People," is the National Journal post by Brian Resnick.
It's a really odd problem to have. Ohio is running out of the drug it uses to kill convicts on death row, the sedative pentobarbital. Combined with a cocktail of muscle paralyzers, and heart-stopping drugs, pentobarbital is the first step in a series of injection that state' consider to be an ethical way of killing a person.
Reuters reports that Ohio has filed with a federal court its intentions to find a replacement for pentobarbital by October 4, so that the new death cocktail will be ready for a scheduled November 14 execution.
Ohio is not alone in the death-drug scramble. Texas, too, is running out of the drug, and reportedly has only enough to last through August. Missouri is also in a scramble and plans to replace its stock with propofol—the drug that is most famous for killing Michael Jackson. (The Missouri Supreme Court just days ago gave the go ahead to start using it.)
So why the shortage? Short answer: No company really wants to be in the business of making death drugs.
So, in summary, here is the state of lethal injection in America: No American company manufactures the drugs, no international company will sell to us, no pharmaceutical outlet wants to be seen manufacturing the drugs, states are resorting to secret concoctions and rushing to find new lethal combinations. Perhaps it won't be a law that makes executions a thing of the past in America. Maybe, it will just be the market.