States Scramble to Find New Ways to Kill People

Ohio is running out of its stock of pentobarbital, the drug it uses to kill people on death row. And it is not alone.

This photo taken May 16, 2013, shows an electric chair on exhibit at the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville, Texas. Between 1924 and 1964, 361 men died in the electric chair. (National Journal)

It's a really odd problem to have. Ohio is running out of the drug it uses to kill convicts on death row, the sedative pentobarbital. Combined with a cocktail of muscle paralyzers, and heart-stopping drugs, pentobarbital is the first step in a series of injections that states consider to be an ethical way of killing a person.

Reuters reports that Ohio has filed with a federal court its intentions to find a replacement for pentobarbital by October 4, so that the new death cocktail will be ready for a scheduled November 14 execution.

Ohio is not alone in the death-drug scramble. Texas, too, is running out of the drug, and reportedly has only enough to last through August. Missouri is also in a scramble and plans to replace its stock with propofol — the drug that is most famous for killing Michael Jackson. (The Missouri Supreme Court just days ago gave the go ahead to start using it.)

So why the shortage? Short answer: No company really wants to be in the business of making death drugs. In 2011, the Danish drug manufacturer that makes pentobarbital declared it would no longer sell its stock for use in capital punishment. The European Union even imposed sanctions against selling death drugs to the United States. No U.S. manufacturer has synthesized lethal injection drugs since 2011. And in April 2012, a federal judge blocked the import of sodium thiopental, a similar drug, all together.

Facing shortages, Georgia passed a Lethal Injection Secrecy Act, which keeps the names of companies that create death-penalty drugs, well, secret. The law would allow the companies to use what are called "compounding pharmacies," which make drugs on spec, and rely on the secrecy to protect their employees. As Georgia's assistant attorney general relayed to NPR news:

There's a good reason for the state to protect manufacturers' identities, she says.

"Once that compounding pharmacy's identity is revealed, how will the Department of Corrections ever get another compounding pharmacy to sell to us?" Graham asks. "Certainly, how will we get a doctor knowing that he is going to be, or she is going to be, dragged into court?"

The law was challenged recently in a death-penalty case, for allowing cruel and unusual punishment. A man was set to die, but it was known that the state had run out of pentobarbital. So what was the state going to use to do the deed? That, under the law, was a state secret. The matter is still under review.

So, in summary, here is the state of lethal injection in America: No American company manufactures the drugs, no international company will sell to us, no pharmaceutical outlet wants to be seen manufacturing the drugs, states are resorting to secret concoctions and rushing to find new lethal combinations. Perhaps it won't be a law that makes executions a thing of the past in America. Maybe, it will just be the market.

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