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Foreign Lethal Injection Drugs Must Meet FDA Standards

Brian Stull,
Senior Staff Attorney ,
ACLU Capital Punishment Project
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March 29, 2012

The courts of the U.S. have long held that the states may punish people with death, putting us in the minority of the world’s countries and in the company of Iran, Iraq, North Korea and the Sudan. The caveat, in the U.S., is that the executions must be humane, and this has led to litigation over the manner in which states perform executions. In the last 30 years the gas chamber and the electric chair have fallen into disuse for this reason; there have also been a number of cases about the drugs used in lethal injection. Unfortunately, states’ efforts to afford fairness in capital (and other) trials have far too often been lax, while their efforts to keep enough drugs on hand for executions have been anything but.

As we’ve said before, states have sought drugs from fly-by-night sources, have traded drugs (illegally), have sought to use scarce drugs for execution that could have been used to bring relief to suffering patients, and have imported drugs not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Thankfully, earlier this week a federal district court issued a ruling concerning this last problem, clarifying the important role the FDA plays in regulating the drugs that cross our nation’s borders. The court found that drugs imported by states for use as anesthesia prior to execution are subject to the same FDA requirements applicable to all imported drugs: most important, the drugs must be reviewed for safety and effectiveness and must come from FDA-registered foreign drug providers.

The decision, by U.S. District Judge Richard Leon, rejected arguments that the monitoring of lethal-injection drugs is outside the FDA’s public-health mandate. As Judge Leon wrote, “[A]lthough protecting the health of an inmate being put to death may seem like an oxymoron to some, those vulnerable few have a right to die with the dignity that an effective pain killer was intended, in part, to afford them.”

The ACLU applauds Judge Leon’s ruling as a victory for common sense and the rule of law.

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