WASHINGTON, February 11, 2011 (AFP) – The U.S. Department of Justice said Thursday it was reviewing a request from 13 states asking for help in obtaining a drug used for executions that is no longer manufactured in the United States.
The only company authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to produce on US soil sodium thiopental – an anesthetic used in lethal injection executions – announced January 21 that it permanently stopped production.
“We will review the letter,” Justice Department spokesperson Alisa Finelli told AFP.
Sodium thiopental is part of a three-drug cocktail normally that the U.S. Supreme Court has approved for use in executions. It effectively puts the person to sleep, before a dose of pancuronium bromide paralyzes the muscles and potassium chloride stops respiration.
“Sodium thiopental is in very short supply worldwide and, for various reasons, essentially unavailable on the open market,” the states said in a late January letter to the federal government, U.S. media reported.
“For those jurisdictions that have the drug available, their supplies are very small – measured in a handful of doses. The result is many jurisdictions shortly will be unable to perform executions in cases where appeals have been exhausted and governors have signed death warrants.
“Therefore we solicit your assistance in either identifying an appropriate source for sodium thiopental or making supplies held by the federal government available to the states,” the letter read.
The last doses of thiopental made in the United States will reach expiration this spring, which will put the 35 U.S. states that practice the death penalty at a crossroads.
The letter was signed by the attorneys general of Nevada, Oregon, Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
Several states, including Texas and Ohio, still have enough doses to carry out executions.
Other states like Oklahoma have modified their protocol by substituting thiopental with pentobarbital, a drug normally used to euthanize animals.
Six death row prisoners claim in a lawsuit filed February 2 that the US government has allowed what they argue is the illegal importation of a drug used for executions.
The complaint requests that the FDA be held responsible for not stopping states from importing thiopental from Europe last fall.
“FDA’s own regulations preclude the importation of any unapproved new drug and any drug that is not listed with FDA and produced at a registered foreign source,” the lawsuit states.
States began turning to lethal injections in the 1980s, replacing electric chairs and firing squads.