Final US manufacturer ceases production of lethal injection drug; executions delayed

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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

File photo of a room in which lethal injections are administered, at San Quentin State Prison in California.

The sole United States manufacturer of a key component of lethal injections announced Friday that it will cease production of the drug, contributing to shortages and delaying executions.

Sodium thiopental, the first of a three drug cocktail used in 34 states to render the prisoner to be executed unconscious, was manufactured in Italy until Italian authorities stated that they would only license the manufacture if it was used for medical purposes and not, crucially, for executions.

In a statement, the company, Hospira, said that they have never condoned the use of their drug, marketed as 'Pentothal', in executions, and that they could not "prevent the drug from being diverted to departments of corrections for use in capital punishment procedures".

The move means that the United States is without a viable supplier for sodium thiopental. Although many European countries manufacture the drug, which is primarily used in Europe as an anæsthetic, no manufacturer has been found that is willing to supply it for use in conjunction with the death penalty, the abolition of which has been lobbied by the EU since 2008.

The shortage means that executions in California and Oklahoma have been delayed, with Texas' last remaining stocks of the drug due to expire in March, weeks before two scheduled executions. These delays are likely to be prolonged as the legal process of drawing up new drugs to be used for injections is lengthy. Pentobarbital, an alternative which used at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, is used for lethal injections in Oregon, and has started to be used by Oklahoma.

Hospira's decision caused mixed reactions throughout the medical community, with the American Society of Anesthesiologists stating Monday that sodium thiopental is an "important and medically necessary anesthetic agent" that is a "first-line anesthetic in many cases", citing geriatric and cardiovascular conditions, among others. It said that, although they disagree with the death penalty, "we also do not condone using the issue as the basis to place undue burdens on the distribution of this critical drug to the United States. It is an unfortunate irony that many more lives will be lost or put in jeopardy as a result of not having the drug available for its legitimate medical use."


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