By: Nathan Koppel
The Wall Street Journal
Saturday, January 22, 2011
The sole U.S. maker of a key execution drug has decided to permanently halt production of the drug, which could lead many states to face delay in carrying out the death penalty.
The decision made on Friday by Hospira Inc. caps months of controversy over thiopental sodium, an anesthetic that has long been used by states as a part of a cocktail of drugs administered during a lethal injection.
Hospira’s decision puts a wrench in the nation’s capital-punishment system. States can attempt to use another anesthetic in place of thiopental, but such a switch likely would need to be approved by courts and possibly state legislators.
Many states have run out of thiopental, forcing prison officials to delay executions. The drug shortage followed a 2009 decision by Hospira to suspend production due to manufacturing issues.
In the face of that opposition, Hospira ultimately decided to exit the thiopental market, said company spokeswoman Tareta Adams. “This will be a challenge for [medical] customers and we regret that,” Ms. Adams said. “But we don’t want to put our Italian facility at risk that the product will be misused” by U.S. prisons.The Lake Forrest, Ill., company had planned to resume producing thiopental in the first quarter of 2011 at a company plant in Liscate, Italy. But in December, the Italian parliament issued an order binding the government to ensure that Hospira’s Italian-made thiopental would not be used in lethal injections.
Hospira, she said, has had discussions with its drug distributors to see if the companies could block the drug from being sold to prisons, but Hospira ultimately decided there was no way to ensure the drug would not be “misused” by prisons.
Late last year, a drug used to euthanize animals was approved for use in capital punishment in Oklahoma. The shortage of thiopental sodium had prompted the state to seek court clearance to use pentobarbital as a substitute.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot in November approved the use of pentobarbital and denied requests to delay the executions of two Oklahoma inmates, whose attorneys had protested its use.
The state has said in court filings that veterinarians regard pentobarbital “as an ideal anesthetic agent for humane euthanasia in animals” and that it is “substantially” similar to thiopental.
Judge Friot’s ruling could prompt other states to use pentobarbital, and thus prevent delays in capital punishment. In the early 1970s, Oklahoma was the first state to approve the use of thiopental in capital punishment, and it later become the nationwide standard for lethal injections.