Access to Sodium Thiopental Forces States to Change Death Penalty Laws

Posted by Zac Stone on January 25th, 2011

California and other death penalty states may have to change their death penalty laws in response to the announcement by the Illinois-based Hospira Inc., the sole manufacturer of sodium thiopental, that it will stop producing the anesthetic included in the cocktail of drugs used in the nation's execution chambers.

Supply of the drug fell below demand after a raw materials shortage that began in 2009, and California corrections officials scrambled to get their hands on enough sodium thiopental to follow through with the September 30th, 2010-scheduled execution of Albert Greenwood Brown, a man convicted of raping and murdering a teenaged girl in Riverside. Fortunately for justice, a court stayed Brown's execution after they determined the expiration date of the state's remaining supply of thiopental - October 1st, 2010 - had influenced Brown's execution date.

Very few questions remain about the incident after the ACLU sued for the disclosure of information regarding California's search for thiopental, which included a drive to Arizona to pick up 12 grams of the drug, sold to Arizona corrections officials by Dream Pharma Ltd., an unassuming London pharmaceutical wholesaler, and manufactured by the British Archimedes Pharma. The British government, in response to the Arizona deal, outlawed the export of sodium thiopental for use in executions, but not before California was able to place a $36,415 order for 514.5 more grams of the anesthetic (three grams are necessary for an execution, with another three required on backup by the state's lethal injection protocol), ensuring that California will have the capacity to kill another hundred-odd prisoners should the occasion arise before the new 2014 expiration date. The legality of using the non-FDA-approved stash for executions will likely be decided in the courts.

Hospira, which was the only FDA-approved source of sodium thiopental, planned to move its production of the drug from North Carolina to a new plant in Italy, a non-death penalty country that demanded the company's assurances that its drugs would not be used to execute inmates. The EU and many European countries already have laws prohibiting the direct support of capital punishment and those that don't are beginning to, the sting of WWII and the Holocaust still exacting its psychological toll. The company decided to discontinue the drug rather than face sanctions by the Italian government for providing execution drugs to the United States.

The move will force many state governments to amend their death penalty laws, ensuring legislative battles and lengthy litigation in many cases. Of the 35 states that still practice lethal injection, 34 use thiopental. Oklahoma recently switched to the anesthetic pentobarbital, commonly used to euthanize animals; Ohio has said it will go this route and other states will no doubt follow suit, but for many states, as in California, the use of sodium thiopental is a requirement of the lethal injection protocol, any change to which will be hotly contested. After four years of legislative hearings and litigation, legal challenges to California's recently amended lethal injection protocol regulations are still ongoing - the reason the state hasn't executed anyone since January of 2006.

Officials in Texas, the nation's most active executioner, have already announced they are exploring the use of other sedatives. The state has only enough sodium thiopental for two of the four executions scheduled there through July. Florida, Georgia, Missouri, and Arkansas, among others, have all faced a shortage of the drug in recent months. Dwindling thiopental stocks coupled with Europe's increased hostility to pro-death penalty interests will push California and other death penalty states to pursue other options. With work and luck, some of those states might consider the costs of maintaining the death penalty - both in financial terms and in human life - to be prohibitive. States with hundreds of inmates sitting on death row like California, Texas, and Florida, stand to lose billions of dollars over just the next few years prosecuting criminals who could much less expensively live out their lives in prison cells for the wrongs they've perpetrated, while running the risk of executing an innocent and continuing to prolong the suffering of victims' families, withholding the closure that comes with knowing an offender will be imprisoned forever. There remains one life-saving, economical alternative to using sodium thiopental - abolishing the death penalty. It is the only option that ensures states will save billions of dollars in the near term while protecting human life.

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