(IPS) Lethal Drug Shortage Creates Ethical Quagmire for Death Penalty

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This article was first published by Inter-Press Service at: http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=54281

ATLANTA, Georgia, Jan 28, 2011 (IPS) – As the domestic and overseas sources that U.S. states relied upon for sodium thiopental (ST), a key drug used in lethal injections, have stopped producing or exporting the drug, state governments are scrambling to find another way to carry out planned executions.

Oklahoma has already switched to a different lethal injection drug called pentobarbital, which had been previously used in animal euthanasia, and has used it to carry out two executions. Another state, Ohio, is considering also using pentobarbital.

However, pentobarbital maker Lundbeck Inc. says it never intended for the drug to be used to put inmates to death. The company sent letters to Ohio and Oklahoma urging the states not to use the drug in carrying out executions.

Arizona, meanwhile, is considering returning to the firing squad method for the death penalty, while other states are looking for other international sources for ST.

Hospira Inc., the only U.S. manufacturer of ST, stopped producing it last year. Hospira had intended to begin producing out of its plant in Italy. However, the death penalty is unconstitutional in Italy.

Earlier this week, Hospira announced it would stop producing the drug altogether because of its use by U.S. states in carrying out lethal injection.

“We cannot take the risk that we will be held liable by the Italian authorities if the product is diverted for use in capital punishment,” Hospira said in a statement.

To complicate matters, in November 2010 the British government placed a ban on the export of ST, after a month of lobbying by Reprieve, a legal charity. Archimedes Pharma, a British manufacturer, had been providing much of the drug to U.S. states for use in executions.

Earlier this week, the state of Georgia carried out a planned execution of Emanuel Hammond, who was charged with raping and murdering a preschool instructor, Julie Love, in 1988. However, the execution almost did not happen because of nationwide shortages of ST and questions about where Georgia had gotten its supply of the drug.

Attorneys for Hammond argued in court filings that Georgia’s current supply of the drug had come from a “fly-by-night supplier operating from the back of a driving school in England”.

“Mr. Hammond’s attorneys presented in court the results of their initial investigation into the source of Georgia’s drugs which suggest that Georgia procured its sodium thiopental from Dream Pharma Ltd, an unlicensed company operating from a back room of a driving school in London, England,” said Kathryn Hamoudah, chair of Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (GFADP).

“Additionally, Mr. Hammond’s attorneys showed that the labels on the boxes of drugs sold by Dream Pharma bear the name Link Pharmaceuticals, a company that has not existed since 2006, which calls into question whether the drugs bought by Georgia are in fact real and/or expired,” Hamoudah said.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas had temporarily postponed the execution late on Tuesday. The full court considered but rejected Hammond’s appeal, and Hammond was pronounced dead at 11:39pm EST that same night.

“It’s really creating an ethical quagmire,” said Laura Moye, death penalty abolition campaign director for Amnesty International USA.

According to Moye, a previous Supreme Court decision ruled that U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not have to approve medical drugs used to end a person’s life. Thus, she anticipates that companies in other countries around the world will begin to produce ST for export to the US.

“The idea you could buy this drug from any country in the world, and who knows which standards they use or don’t use, and ship to the U.S. to have anybody killed, is pretty alarming. We’re anticipating a lot of litigation. Lawyers are going to be saying, don’t use my client as a guinea pig,” Moye said.

Some U.S. states still have some supplies of ST in stock, but they are running out, and the existing drug stockpiles will eventually expire.

“In Arizona there was an execution, where the person was killed with sodium thiopental from Archimedes [obtained prior to the company’s decision to end exports]. They got it from another supplier. With Mr. Hammond [in Georgia] it probably originated out of Archimedes, but it was sold out of a company operating out of the back of a driving school,” Moye said.

“Nebraska yesterday bought 166 doses [of ST] from a company in India. So, it seems the Departments of Corrections are really looking around to find where they can buy this drug. Nebraska’s doses from India expire in 2012,” Moye said.

The state of Texas still has enough of the drug to carry out two scheduled executions in February 2011, but will have to obtain more to carry out a third in May, according to Wall Street Journal newspaper.

Mississippi ran out of ST last year, but was able to obtain more for two May 2010 executions “through a pharmacist who did not want to be identified”, according to the Associated Press.

“They’re continuing to chase a new way to kill people. The whole affair is unacceptable to us. It sort of underlines the challenges of the states in terms of having to engage the medical profession in this really unethical institution,” Moye said.

Thirty-five U.S. states still carry out the death penalty, although the Illinois legislature recently approved a ban on the practice. It is now up to the governor to either sign or veto the bill.

(END / 2011)

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