Texas Is Running Out of Execution Drugs

Texas has just one month's supply remaining of pentobarbital, the drug used in the most active death penalty chambers in the country.

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Texas has just one month's supply remaining of pentobarbital, the drug used in the most active death penalty chambers in the country. Whatever's left of the state's supply of the drug expires at the beginning of September. And replenishing their supply won't be easy, leaving the fate of two inmates scheduled to die in September unclear.

The AP explains that the state has seven more executions scheduled for this year — they've carried out 11, so far, most recently on Wednesday. Unless Texas has procured more of the drug since their last disclosure in 2012, the state should have enough pentobarbital left for three more executions, provided they happen within the next month. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice told the AP that the state doesn't have a back-up plan to continue carrying out executions once the drug supply expires:

"We will be unable to use our current supply of pentobarbital after it expires," agency spokesman Jason Clark said. "We are exploring all options at this time."

Texas, like every U.S. state that practices lethal injection, ran into a major supply problem over the past few years: In 2011, the only manufacturer of the anesthetic sodium thiopental (the first of the three drugs normally administered to an inmate sentenced to die by lethal injection) ceased production after its Italian production facility refused to participate in the U.S.'s administration of capital punishment. A few states were able to secure last-minute supplies of the drug from other countries before it became unavailable in the U.S., but that was only a short-term solution. Soon, states started using just a single drug, pentobarbital, for lethal injection sentences. That drug has been traditionally used to euthanize animals. Thanks to a court ruling allowing for the drug's use in a 2010 Oklahoma execution, other states pushed ahead with stocking up on the new option. But now, those supplies are either dwindling or expiring as suppliers restrict the ability of states to purchase it for executions.

But this doesn't mean that Texas, or any of the other states who continue to execute inmates, will give up on capital punishment. Here's what two other states have tried:

Georgia — Make the Source of the Drug a State Secret

The state of Georgia passed a law that classifies the source and method of production for lethal injection drugs, in part because they wanted to start going to compounding pharmacies to make it for them. The law is being challenged in connection to the pending execution of Warren Hill, who has been diagnosed as mentally disabled by a series of doctors now. Andrew Cohen at the Atlantic explained Georgia's strategy: "As 'official' supplies of the drug have dwindled, state officials have resorted to dramatic means -- including possibly unlawful means --  to obtain it." He continues:

So not only is Georgia proceeding with an execution that ought to be barred by the Supreme Court's decision in Atkins, but the state also is proceeding unconstitutionally with Hill's execution by employing secret procurement procedures that create both risk of cruelty to the condemned and at the same time raise profound separation-of-powers questions. 

Georgia, like Texas, now uses a one-drug lethal injection cocktail. Their remaining supply expired at the end of march. Ohio is also considering going to compounding pharmacies to re-up their supply when it expires at the end of September. As for the secrecy method,  Arkansas, South Dakota and Tennessee have also added provisions blocking public knowledge of the names of suppliers, to avoid further pressure compelling companies to stop supplying it altogether. Anti death penalty activist taking the company pressure approach have been remarkably effective at helping to cut off the supply of drugs.

Missouri — Find a Different Drug.

Missouri's execution chambers are currently in a holding pattern as the state tries to figure out how to continue to execute prisoners. While some, according to the AP, have suggested a return to the gas chamber (still legal under state law), Missouri's main option is to try a new drug: propofol. That's the drug blamed for Michael Jackson's death, and it's never been used in an American execution before. And as ABC explains, drug manufacturers are already refusing to supply more of the drug for state executions. The state's supply of the drug will only last until 2015, with an older batch set to expire in October — so even if the courts do clear the way for the new procedures, it'll only be a temporary solution.

Recently, Texas reached the grim milestone of its 500th execution. But unless they figure out yet another way to keep in a supply of a legal drug for executions, they'll join other states — like California — in an effective freeze on capital punishment until federal courts review and approve a new method. However, if past experience tells us anything, it's that Texas is very, very unlikely to stop trying.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.