Thursday 27 January 2011

Mississippi affected by shortage of execution drug

Just weeks before Mississippi had back-to-back executions for the first time in nearly 50 years, officials were scrambling to find enough sodium thiopental to carry out the sentences.
The executions were carried out as scheduled, but the difficulty in finding sodium thiopental shows Mississippi is not immune from a nationwide shortage of the drug.
State Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said Wednesday the state is looking for a replacement for sodium thiopental, one of three drugs used in Mississippi's executions.
"We don't have a choice. We're wearing out our options," Epps said.
Hospira Inc., the only U.S. supplier of sodium thiopental, stopped producing it in 2009. The company recently announced that it won't resume production.
Epps and the Mississippi attorney general's office said Wednesday that state officials are looking for a different drug for executions, but using a new drug creates the potential for a wave of legal challenges to the state's method of execution.
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood wrote a letter to Hospira last April, asking if there was anything he could do to help expedite a shipment of sodium thiopental because the state didn't have enough for two executions, scheduled the following month, on May 19 and 20.
In a reply dated May 18, Brian J. Smith, senior vice president, general counsel and secretary for Hospira, told Hood he couldn't help because Hospira does "not support the use of any of our products in capital punishment procedures" and that manufacturing had halted in mid-2009 due to "manufacturing difficulties."
Smith wrote that Hospira was aware its products were being obtained from third parties for executions, but the company didn't agree with that practice and would not ship directly for use in lethal injections.
The Associated Press obtained the letters through a public records request.
The Mississippi Department of Corrections eventually got the drug for the two May executions from a pharmacist who doesn't want to be identified, said department spokeswoman Tara Booth.
Mississippi executed Paul Everette Woodward as scheduled on May 19 for the 1986 rape and murder of a 24-year-old woman. The following day, Gerald James Holland was put to death for raping and killing a 15-year-old girl.
That was the first time Mississippi carried out back-to-back executions since 1961.
Epps said the state has enough sodium thiopental for four executions, but sodium thiopental has a shelf life and the current supply expires in March.
Epps said the he expected Hospira to quit making sodium thiopental, and he's been looking for the best alternate that will stand up to court challenges. Epps said he's been researching other drugs and what other states are doing. He plans to discuss the matter with Oklahoma officials at a corrections conference this weekend.
Oklahoma began using pentobarbital, a surgical sedative sometimes used in assisted suicides, instead of sodium thiopental last year. Ohio announced Tuesday that it could become the first state to use pentobarbital alone, without two additional drugs that paralyze inmates and stop their hearts.
But pentobarbital maker Lundbeck Inc. said Wednesday that it never intended for the drug to be used to put inmates to death. The company's Deerfield, Ill., office sent letters to Ohio and Oklahoma on Wednesday urging the states not to use the drug in their capital punishment procedures.
Sodium thiopental is an anesthetic that is supposed to leave the inmate unconscious and unable to feel pain. In Mississippi and several other states, it is used in combination with pancuronium bromide, a paralytic that is intended to prevent involuntary muscle movements, and potassium chloride, used to stop the heart.

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