A federal judge’s decision to block imports of a drug used in executions will leave states to rely more on a substitute drug that could itself be getting scarce — developments that raise questions about both how these drugs are regulated and whether states will have the drugs they need to continue capital punishment by lethal injection.
Over the past three decades, lethal injection has become the primary method of execution in the United States because it is widely viewed as the most humane alternative. Thirty-five states and the federal government use this method and more than 1,100 inmates have been put to death by lethal injection.
State justice or corrections departments have conducted these executions by administering the anesthetic sodium thiopental in a lethal dosage on its own, or as part of a three-step “cocktail” in which sodium thiopental is followed by pancuronium bromide, a paralytic agent, then potassium chloride, which stops the heart and causes death.
But in late March, a federal judge blocked importation of sodium thiopental, ruling that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ignored the law by allowing it to be imported into the country without following regulatory protocol. The drugs were slated for executions, a purpose unapproved by the agency — and unlikely to ever be approved by the agency. Sodium thiopental is only available from overseas, because its U.S. manufacturer, Hospira Inc., stopped making it 2011, as a result of controversies over its use in executions.
Search for an alternative
The logical alternative to sodium thiopental is pentobarbital, an anesthetic that causes people to lose consciousness, sensation, and memory. Since 2010, 12 state justice departments have used pentobarbital, a drug veterinarians also administer to euthanize animals, to execute 47 inmates, ...