Hospira Scraps Lethal Injection Drug
(01/31/2011)

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — The sole American manufacturer of an anesthetic used in lethal injections said Friday that it would cease making the drug due to international constraints.

The manufacturer, Hospira Inc. of Lake Forest, Ill., had originally planned to resume producing the drug, sodium thiopental, this winter in Italy, easing the shortage that delayed scheduled executions in the United States.

But the Italian authorities said they would not permit export of the drug if it might be used for capital punishment. Hospira said in a statement Friday that its aim was to serve medical customers, but that “we could not prevent the drug from being diverted to departments of corrections.”

Hospira does not have domestic facilities that can make sodium thiopental and has decided to “exit the market.” No other American companies manufacture the drug, which is used by 34 of the 35 states that execute prisoners by lethal injection.

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During a temporary halt in production last year, scarcity of sodium thiopental delayed executions in California and Oklahoma.

The extent to which execution schedules will be further disrupted by the drug shortage is not yet clear. In many states, adopting a new protocol for lethal injections requires formal proposals, public comment and often challenges in court — a process that can take months or more. But in others, switching drugs might be done more quickly, by administrative fiat.

Last fall, California and Arizona obtained shipments of sodium thiopental from England, but the British government has since refused to allow exports of drugs for use in capital punishment, a policy that is under consideration by the entire European Union.

Many states are expected to follow the lead of Oklahoma, substituting pentobarbital, a more easily available anesthetic.

Pentobarbital is used in veterinary medicine and as well as in legal human euthanasia in Oregon. Death penalty opponents challenged the switch last year in Oklahoma, arguing that the drug’s ability to prevent pain during executions was unproven, but a federal judge sided with the state, which has since executed three prisoners with the new drug.

Only one company, Lundbeck Inc., manufactures injectable pentobarbital in the US but there is no shortage of the drug.

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