FDA has helped two states obtain anesthetic used in executions

Most state prison systems use sodium thiopental to put inmates to sleep before administering drugs that stop the heart.
Most state prison systems use sodium thiopental to put inmates to sleep before administering drugs that stop the heart. (Pat Sullivan)

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By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Food and Drug Administration, which has long maintained that it has nothing to do with drugs used in executions, has quietly helped Arizona and California obtain a scarce type of anesthetic so the states could continue putting inmates to death.

The shortage of sodium thiopental has disrupted executions around the country. But newly released documents show that the FDA helped import it from Britain.

Most state prison systems use sodium thiopental to put inmates to sleep before administering pancuronium bromide, a paralyzing agent, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.

But the drug has been in short supply since last spring, when Ohio nearly had to postpone an execution because it did not have enough.

The sole American manufacturer, Hospira of Lake Forest, Ill., in suburban Chicago, has blamed supplier issues for its inability to make the drug, which is marketed to render patients unconscious, not for lethal injections. Any remaining batches expire this year.

After Arizona officials explained their need, an FDA official recommended that a shipment of the drug "be processed expeditiously to us as it was for the purpose of executions and not for use by the general public."

The information is contained in an e-mail from an Arizona prison official to the California prisons agency obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through a public records request. The ACLU then posted it online.

The ACLU accused the FDA of trying to hold two contradictory positions at once.

"The FDA is actively assisting these states, but they're not enforcing the law, and they're not doing anything to determine that the drugs are what they're claimed to be and that they work properly," said Natasha Minkser, death penalty policy director for the ACLU's Northern California chapter.

A federal lawsuit in Arizona challenges the use of overseas drugs, saying they may be substandard and could lead to botched executions if they do not put an inmate to sleep properly.

The FDA would not comment on its role in helping either state.

The agency is required by law to ensure the safety and effectiveness of drugs imported for medical purpose. But agency officials maintain that their oversight does not extend to drugs for executions, citing a 1985 Supreme Court ruling.


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