Hospira, a U.S. company that produces sodium thiopental, an anesthetic used by 34
35 of the 35 36 states that execute prisoners, recently announced it will stop production of the drug. The decision came as a result of the company moving its production facility to Italy, which would only allow the sodium thiopental produced in the country to be used in medical procedures. A similar stipulation with a British supplier led to Hospira being the only supplier of the anesthetic to the United States. Sodium thiopental has been scarce in the U.S. prior to yesterday’s decision (apparently due to it being substituted for other anesthetics that have had shortages), prompting some interesting quests for the drug. Additionally, Hospira has never been comfortable with the drug’s use in lethal injections.
All states currently executing prisoners have lethal injection as the primary method of execution. In most cases, this involves the use of three different drugs, with sodium thiopental putting the condemned into unconsciousness before two other drugs are used to kill the person. Two states, Washington and Ohio, have recently switched to using only sodium thiopental and simply administering a lethal dose. One state, Oklahoma, replaced sodium thiopental with sodium pentobarbital in 2009.
The production stoppage is likely to become an issue first in those states that frequently execute prisoners. Texas apparently has only enough sodium thiopental to handle the two executions scheduled for next month. Two more are scheduled between then and July. The State of California obtained 12 grams of the drug in 2010 with an expiration date of 2014. Under a three-drug protocol that would be enough for four executions, and there are 7 death row inmates in California that have exhausted all their appeals and reviews. Kentucky’s supply – unless it’s been extended – expired last October. States with single-drug protocols will need more per execution. If there are no other production facilities willing to ship to the United States (and there appear to be no domestic facilities), states may have at most four years (assuming the shelf life of the California sample to be typical) to figure out alternatives.
There are provisions in some states’ laws for alternative methods of execution, either for those inmates sentenced to death before lethal injection became the primary method, or in the event injection was ever deemed unconstitutional. There are contentions that the three-drug protocol did not truly induce unconsciousness in all cases. Being given an paralytic drug and a painful drug that stops the heart while conscious could be considered cruel and unusual punishment. Additionally, not all lethal injection attempts are successful. It is possible that states may use those laws as guidance for how to adjust their execution procedures.
Alternatively, other drugs could be found, but it seems likely that their use would need to be tested, which is a challenging proposition to find doctors willing to test the lethality of drugs to be used in executions. New drugs would almost certainly be challenged in court, as it was in Oklahoma when they switched its drug of choice. Perhaps there will be a shift toward the Oklahoma method, which is the preferred method in China as well.
But during all of this switching and changing, executions will likely be less frequent, with the associated expenses rising. Death penalty opponents will press this as an opportunity to further their cause, and the added expense may prompt some states to scrap the punishment as too expensive. We have some time to see how this all plays out, but Texas will likely have to do something very soon to avoid any delays.
And this is all for lack of a drug.