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Texas finds more lethal injection drugs after all

The death chamber at the federal penitentiary in Texas. (Texas Department of Criminal Justice via Reuters)

Texas, the country’s leading death-penalty state, was facing a bit of a quandary recently: Authorities there have six executions scheduled over the next three months, but they only had only enough lethal injection drugs to carry out one of them. And they were not sure what to do when they ran out. Would they postpone the other executions? Try to find a new lethal injection drug, as so many other states have done amid a shortage of execution drugs?

The state will have a little longer to figure that out. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice said Wednesday that it had obtained another batch of pentobarbital, the drug used in lethal injections there since 2012.

This comes a little more than two weeks before the state’s next scheduled execution, which is set for April 9. That is the first of four executions set for April, with lethal injections also on the calendar in May and June. (Texas was originally going to run out of drugs last week, but a Texas court stopped that execution.)

The state has enough for the four April executions, but if all of them are carried out as scheduled, it could face the same problem before the lethal injection scheduled for May.

“We continue to explore all options including the continued used of pentobarbital or alternate drugs to use in the lethal injection process,” Jason Clark, a spokesman for the department, said in an e-mail Wednesday.

[Related: Utah makes firing squads the state’s backup execution option]

If the state does not obtain additional pentobarbital, it is not clear whether the executions in May and June will be carried out or delayed. It is possible the state could turn to other drugs for the first time since it adopted pentobarbital three years ago. The state’s protocol for lethal injections, which currently calls for 5 grams of pentobarbital to be used and the same amount to be available as a backup, can be altered by William Stephens, director of the state’s Correctional Institutions Division.

Clark said that the state bought the drugs from “a licensed pharmacy that has the ability to compound,” but he declined to answer additional questions about the pharmacy. He had previously pointed to a lawsuit filed against the Department of Criminal Justice in order to force it to reveal the name of the compounding pharmacy that had supplied the state with lethal injection drugs.

A day before Texas announced it had purchased these drugs, a professional association for compounding pharmacies released a statement saying it was discouraging members from helping states carry out executions. The process has been shrouded in secrecy in some places, with states hiding the identities of the sources of their lethal injection drugs.

The uncertainty regarding drugs in Texas comes as states across the country are scrambling to continue carrying out executions. States had typically relied upon a three-drug combination that has effectively disappeared in recent years, prompting states to turn to new drugs and untested combinations. This situation has prompted criticism from opponents of capital punishment, and it has also drawn considerable public scrutiny following three executions that went awry last year.

[Related: Why the Supreme Court is considering lethal injection again]

So far this year, Georgia has postponed executions indefinitely while officials there analyze “cloudy” drugs that were almost used in a recent lethal injection, while Ohio has shelved executions for the rest of the year while it seeks out new drugs.

Meanwhile, states facing the shortage have discussed returning to the electric chair or gas chamber. Most of these proposals have gone nowhere, but this week, Utah made the firing squad its official backup method of execution if lethal injection drugs cannot be obtained.


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