US executions put on hold over shortage of lethal injection drug
Legal and ethical roadblocks loom as 35 states battle to find alternatives
Executions in the US have been put on hold because of a shortage of one of the drugs used in lethal injections from coast to coast.
Several of the 35 states that rely on lethal injection are either scrambling to find sodium thiopental -- an anaesthetic that renders the condemned inmate unconscious -- or considering using another drug. But both routes are strewn with legal or ethical roadblocks.
The shortage delayed an Oklahoma execution last month and led Kentucky's governor to postpone the signing of death warrants for two inmates. Arizona is trying to get its hands on the drug in time for its next execution in late October.
California said the shortage will force it to stop executions on Friday, three hours after an inmate is scheduled to die, when its stock expires.
The sole US manufacturer, Hospira Inc of Lake Forest, Illinois, has blamed the shortage on unspecified problems with its raw-material suppliers and said new batches of sodium thiopental will not be available until January at the earliest.
Nine states have a total of 17 executions scheduled between now and the end of January, including Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.
"We are working to get it back on to the market for our customers as soon as possible," Hospira spokesman Dan Rosenberg said.
But at least one death penalty expert was sceptical of Hospira's explanation, noting that the company had made it clear it objected to using its drugs for executions. Hospira also makes the two other chemicals used in lethal injections.
Sodium thiopental is a barbiturate, used primarily to anaesthetise surgical patients and induce medical comas.
It is also used to help terminally ill people commit suicide and sometimes to euthanise animals.
Some 33 of the states that have lethal injection employ the three-drug combination that was created in the 1970s: first, sodium thiopental is given by syringe to put the inmate to sleep; then two other drugs are administered: pancuronium bromide, which paralyses muscles, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.
Ohio and Washington state use just one drug to carry out executions: a single, extra-large dose of sodium thiopental.
Hospira has blamed the shortage on "raw-material supplier issues" since last spring, first promising availability in July, then October, then early 2011.
The company has refused to elaborate on the problem. But according to a letter from the Kentucky governor's office, Hospira told state officials that it lost its sole supplier of the drug's active ingredient and was trying to find a new one.
As for the possibility of obtaining the drug elsewhere, the Food and Drug Administration said there are no FDA-approved manufacturers of sodium thiopental overseas.
Switching to another anaesthetic would be difficult for some states. Some, like California, Missouri and Kentucky, adopted their procedures after lengthy court proceedings, and changing drugs could take time and invite lawsuits.
Obtaining sodium thiopental from hospitals does not appear to be an option, either. Sodium thiopental has been largely supplanted by other anaesthetics in the US, and hospitals do not stock much of it.
Also, drug purchasing and use rules -- and ethical guidelines that bar the medical profession from getting involved in executions -- could prevent hospitals from supplying prisons with the drug, according to industry experts.