Federal & state executioners need a drug fix

A lethal drug has been in short supply since its Illinois manufacturer has expressed a desire to not be known as the supplier, and this is causing high-ranking officials to scramble for a fix. In January 2011, the Illinois-based Hospira announced it would stop producing sodium thiopental (product name, Pentothal™), which is a key drug for executions by lethal injection. Hospira’s move came in response to  a demand by the Italian government for a guarantee that the manufacturer’s Italian plant output of sodium thiopental would not be used in an American execution. Rather than place the company’s Italian employees at risk, Hospira decided that  to  cease all production of the drug.

The immediate shortfall in sodium thiopental caused states to delay executions and scramble for alternatives. In many cases, switching to another drug involves getting approval of courts and legislatures, a time-consuming and expensive process. Some states do have other options, Utah is able to utilize firing squads, and Georgia still has the electric chair as an alternative, while other states are able to use different drugs or combinations of drugs.

Some states appealed to  Federal authorities, requesting assistance in obtaining the drug, prompting the U.S. government to ask the German government to intervene and convince one of that nation’s drug companies to begin supplying the executioner’s needs. The German Vice-Chancellor rebuffed the American request. European governments including Britain, France and Denmark have also made it clear that they are uninterested in providing lethal drugs to be used in executions. The negative publicity for EU companies that have even considered supplying the executioner’s drugs has led to drastic drops in stock prices and noticeable tarnishing of company images. Most recently the EU has firmed up the regulations regarding the export of drugs used in executions, a move that will further aggravate the shortage of drugs used in executions.

Federal and state officials have moved on to what is hoped to be greener pastures for execution drugs, approaching companies in India to supply sodium thiopental. To mask the real purpose of the purchase, federal and state officials approached the companies via an intermediary. This strategy caused a scandal in India, when it was revealed that a drug company publicly committed to assisting the ill and suffering would be providing a drug used to snuff out the life of a living person.

An important reason for the use of sodium pentothal is the need for anesthesia while the paralytic drugs take effect. Without anesthesia, the inmate being executed will feel intense pain, which has been described as a burning sensation followed by slow asphyxiation with total awareness of what is happening, without being able to respond or signal to others what they are experiencing.

To make matters worse, even with the use of a good anesthetic, administration of the drug is often problematic. An anesthesiologist is trained for over five thousand days on proper methods to administer anesthesia. A prison official charged with administering anesthesia during an execution may only receive two to three hours of training. This has led to botched executions with inmates struggling in obvious distress and pain as the drugs fail to do their job in the correct order, providing a true horror show for witnesses. When Roy Blankenship was executed in Georgia, he gasped, struggled, lurched and jerked on the gurney for a prolonged period and never closed his eyes. Georgia has made no significant changes in its procedures or materials used since then.

The ACLU has compared America’s efforts to obtain lethal drugs to continue carrying out executions to a junkie continuing to seek his fix. Other drugs have been tried without the desired results (much like junkies try other drugs when unable to get their “drug of choice”).  The U.S. has been warned and pleaded with to discontinue its drug use (again like a junkie’s friends staging interventions), and still the U.Ss is unwilling to give up the drug use.

Some would claim that many of the problems described should not be a worry; after all we are talking about people who committed horrendous crimes. Troy Davis was executed recently by the state of Georgia, using a drug cocktail that included sodium thiopental and there is still doubt about his guilt. Davis insisted on his innocence to the very end. The fact is that innocent people are executed along with many others who or may not be innocent, with no expectation of certainty one way or the other. The rest of the world considers the practice barbaric. Shouldn’t we?