ATLANTA, Georgia - The death penalty is in limbo in several states since the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency confiscated several states' supplies of sodium thiopental (ST), a key drug used in lethal injections, and as the supply of the drug to the U.S. grows even tighter.
First, the DEA confiscated Georgia's supply of ST on Mar. 15 after questions surfaced about the origin of the drugs. Then, on Apr. 1, Kentucky and Tennessee voluntarily gave up their supplies to the agency.
Georgia had purchased its supply of ST from a pharmaceutical company operating out of the back of a driving school in London.
Meanwhile, the supply of ST has gotten even tighter in the U.S. On Apr. 7, the Indian company Kayem announced it would no longer supply ST to states that practice the death penalty.
"In view of the sensitivity involved with sale of our Thiopental Sodium to various Jails/Prisons in USA and as alleged to be used for the purpose of Lethal Injection, we voluntary declare that we as Indian Pharma Dealer who cherish the Ethos of Hinduism (A believer even in non-livings as the creation of God) refrain ourselves in selling this drug where the purpose is purely for Lethal Injection and its misuse," Kayem said in a statement.
On Apr. 14, Britain said it would block exports to the U.S. of three lethal injection drugs, including ST, and urged the European Union to do the same. Britain had previously blocked exports of ST to the U.S. for use in lethal injections in November 2010.
Hospira Inc., the only U.S. manufacturer of ST, announced it would no longer make the drug at its new plant in Italy. Hospira had intended to begin producing out of its plant in Italy. However, the death penalty is unconstitutional in Italy and the government had insisted the company take responsibility for the end use of its product.
Now, some states are switching to a new lethal injection drug, pentobarbital (PB), which is also used in medical treatments as well as animal euthanasia.
Last week, Georgia - which had its supply of ST confiscated - said it is considering use of PB and that state officials have traveled to Ohio and Oklahoma to learn about their recent experiences using the drug.
The state of Oklahoma already began using PB as part of a three drug combination in December 2010. In March, Ohio executed a man, Johnnie Baston, a convicted murderer, with PB. Ohio officials said it worked just as well as ST.
On Mar. 16, Texas decided to start using PB.
Pentobarbital is made by Lundbeck, a Danish company, which does not condone the drug's use by U.S. states in carrying out the death penalty. However, Lundbeck has not gone as far as some other companies and is continuing to sell the drug to distributors.
"I don't really know who the distributors are," said Laura Moye, death penalty abolition campaign director for Amnesty International USA. "Lundbeck has made it clear they don't want it sold for these purposes. I don't know how many times it changes hands until gets to the Department of Corrections. They essentially lose control of what happens to the drug."
"It presents a very difficult ethical dilemma. They're ultimately buying these drugs from a manufacturer who's very clear [that] the purpose of the drug is to heal people, not kill people," she said. "It just kind of underscores how ethically complicated it can be to carry out executions."
"The availability of these drugs in the U.S. has become so limited, and the European countries said they don't want these drugs used for executions. States have to figure out how to get these lethal injection drugs," Moye added.
"It's not clear what's going on in these states. Are they getting it from other states that had a pre-existing supply, or from other sources?"
An Apr. 13 article by the New York Times reviewed depositions in various lawsuits brought by death row inmates, revealing that states conspired to avoid inspections of shipments containing the drugs.
In one case, Wendy Kelley, an Arkansas Department of Corrections official, actually got in her car and drove to other states such as Tennessee and Texas to traffic the drug back to Arkansas to be used to execute a man.
"We would have hoped that Georgia would have had the foresight and decency to halt executions in light of the national and international concerns about the source and viability of lethal injection. Instead, the Georgia Department of Corrections went around the law to buy questionable drugs and then used them to extinguish two men," said Kathryn Hamoudah, chairperson of Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
"Now, federal intervention has forced Georgia to give up its black market drugs," she said.