States Scour the Globe for Scarce Lethal Drugs, but Some Still Find Ways to Execute its Death Row Inmates

Sunday, October 11, 2015
Tennessee’s electric chair (photo: Mark Humphrey, Getty Images)

The lack of available drug supplies for executions has forced many states to look far and wide for solutions, even turning to old methods for enforcing capital punishment.


Corrections officials in Ohio and Nebraska have tried to buy drugs for lethal injections from overseas suppliers.


Ohio, which halted all executions but hopes to restart them next year, has tried to obtain a sedative, sodium thiopental, from another country to use as part of its death-penalty cocktail. But the move prompted a warning from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which informed Ohio that it had not approved an application for sodium thiopental, “and it is illegal to import an unapproved new drug into the United States,” the agency warned in a letter.


Nebraska also has looked to foreign suppliers, turning to a source in India. The state Department of Correctional Services has reportedly ordered hundreds of vials and capsules of sodium thiopental and pancuronium bromide at a cost of more than $50,000. However, the drugs have not been delivered and would fall under the same restrictions as Ohio’s attempted purchases.


Texas has gone with a sedative known as pentobarbital made by a compounding pharmacy, which are largely unregulated by the FDA, instead of buying it from a drug manufacturer. The state was gracious enough to share some of its pentobarbital with Virginia, which had previously shared some of its execution drugs with Texas.


Other states have opted for execution methods that were long ago discarded. If lethal injection is not available, Tennessee intends to use the electric chair, while Utah has approved firing squads once again. Oklahoma and Louisiana are considering the use of nitrogen gas, either in a chamber or delivered through a mask.


Oklahoma has called a temporary halt to its executions until it can either get more drugs or settle on another method. Previous executions there have been horribly botched, with inmates crying out in pain. Later it was discovered that the prison had used the wrong drug.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Delays as Death-Penalty States Scramble for Execution Drugs (by Manny Fernandez, New York Times)

Ohio Death Row Quandary: 2 Dozen Executions, No Lethal Drugs (by Andrew Welsh-Huggins, Associated Press)

Meet the Woman behind a Shortage of Execution Drugs (by Holly Williams, Vox)

California Back on the Slow Path to Resuming Executions (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Georgia Uses Secrecy Law to Obtain Lethal Drug for Execution of Mentally Disabled Prisoner (by Danny Biederman and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


anonamouse 8 years ago
A drug overdose is simple to arrange. Why do states persist in paying Big Pharma prices to execute their condemned prisoners, especially when the drugs they receive from Big Pharma don't always do the job in a "humane" fashion? Is it because a vengeful public PREFERS that great suffering be part of the execution process? Any street dealer could provide --- at a fraction of the cost (or possibly even for free as part of a plea deal, LOL) --- a "hot shot" (lethal dose) of heroin. Let's be clear: the states are already in the business of purposefully overdosing people, only they are using "bad drugs" to do it. But real "bad drugs," the kind that kill users nearly every day in this country (kudos to the "war on drugs" for this bit of perverse social engineering) are cheap and readily available: why not use them to produce a "humane," predictable, painless death for the condemned? After all, we know that some of these men are innocent of the crime for which they will die --- don't they at least deserve an easy death?

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