States may go overseas for lethal injection drugs

Deborah Denno in The Examiner, October 27, 2010

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States may go overseas for lethal injection drugs

The nation is facing a shortage of a lethal injection and may look to get their supplies from other countries.

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Experts say such a move raises questions about the effectiveness of the drug, and could further complicate executions in the 35 states that allow them.

Inmates have challenged the use of drugs not approved by federal inspectors for use in the U.S.

For the first time, a state has acknowledged it received sodium thiopental from outside the U.S. Arizona said it received its supply of the drug from Great Britain.

"This drug came from a reputable place," Chief Deputy Attorney General Tim Nelson said. "There's all sorts of wild speculation that it came from a third-world country, and that's not accurate."

Nelson told the public the supply is trustworthy and tried to dispel rumors. He did not name the company, however, that manufactured it.

Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University, said without assurances of the drug’s quality questions will be raised, including its effectiveness and how it should be used, which could serve as a basis for lawsuits.

"The impact could be huge," Denno said. "The source of the thiopental is critical."

There are no FDA-approved overseas manufacturers of the drug.

The controversy could end if the company that manufactures the drug in the U.S., Hospira, resumes making the drug next year as indicated, or states could switch to another drug.

At least 15 states, including Arizona, Florida, Missouri, Texas and Tennessee, might be able to switch drugs without a new law or administrative process, death penalty expert Megan McCracken said.

The issue will come down to whether an overseas version of sodium thiopental would be equivalent to what the FDA has approved here, said Ty Alper, associate director of the death penalty clinic at the University of California-Berkeley.

"It really opens the door to Eighth Amendment challenges that go to the heart of whether executions work the way they're supposed to," he said, referring to the amendment about prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.