What happens when states run out of their lethal drug?


The structural formula for pentobarbital, the latest lethal injection drug we’ve run out of.

States are running out of lethal injection drugs, and the shortage uncovers some big questions about capital punishment.

Why now? Our supplier is cutting us off.

Pentobarbital, one of the latest lethal injection drugs, comes from a Danish company called Lundbeck LLC. Because the European Union opposes capital punishment, Lundbeck is standing with its countrymen and ending our supply of the drug.

And Lundbeck isn’t the first company that’s tried to distance itself from execution; this shortage is just one link on a long chain of suppliers that have decided to stop producing lethal injection drugs–European and American companies. And pentobarbital is just the latest drug states have had to turn to to find a way to carry out the death penalty, and like many of those other drugs, it wasn’t designed for a lethal purpose.

So how is this playing out? Thanks to NPR’s Kathy Loer’s great reporting, I can give you a brief tour of how this is playing out.

An execution in Missouri was recently cancelled because the drug the state planned to use disappeared: propofol, an anesthetic many US hospitals use, came from a German company called Fresenius Kabi. When they got word of how their drug was being used, according to Loer’s report, they started limiting its distribution in the U.S. “The European Union has a statute that does not allow the export of any product that might be used in capital punishment,” said company spokesman Matt Kuhn.

Georgia has a new law that lets it keep its supplier secret, the Lethal Injection Secrecy Act. But one inmate currently on death row, is challenging the constitutionality of that law.

And today in Ohio, a hearing could decide whether the state will be the first to put a new, untested cocktail of lethal injection drugs into place.

But now there’s another issue: Missouri, Ohio, Texas (and for all we know, Georgia!) have started getting their drugs from compounding pharmacies, which lets them bypass the big European drug manufacturers altogether. And what’s more: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate them, either.

“The drugs they’re producing, including this pentobarbital, are not made specifically for executions and … no court has actually reviewed this process,” Lohr says. “So if the drugs cannot be validated as effective, this could be a violation of an inmate’s Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment.”

Experts say best practice should be valued over the easiest thing to get a hold of. “And that’s what we’ve come down to: What can the states get a hold of from the backroom of local pharmacies, rather than what’s recommended by medical experts,” says Richard Dieter from the Death Penalty Information Center.

We’ll see what happens, in Ohio, in Georgia, and what, if any, ripple effects these big questions have for the country.




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