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Medication Shortage Reveals Some States' Shamefully Wrong Priorities

Brian Stull,
Senior Staff Attorney ,
ACLU Capital Punishment Project
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October 1, 2010

The last-minute legal maneuverings over the pending execution of Albert Brown in California this past week put a spotlight on sodium thiopental, one of drugs used in lethal injection executions.

Physicians use sodium thiopental as an anesthetic for patients undergoing surgery. In most all of the 35 states with the death penalty, prisons use sodium thiopental as part of a lethal three-drug cocktail to execute condemned inmates.

A nationwide shortage of this drug calls into serious question the priorities of states that use it to execute.

The New York Times reports that the shortage of this drug has not only halted executions in several states, but is also disrupting ordinary surgical protocols. Anesthesiologists are “being forced to use less familiar medications that leave patients groggier and with a higher risk of nausea and headaches.”

Meanwhile, Wednesday’s Huntsville Item reported that “Texas is well stocked with the drug,” but that prison officials have asked Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott for an opinion on whether they have to reveal the amount of sodium thiopental they have on hand, in a “move to prevent disclosure.” Texas, which in 1982 was the first state to employ lethal injection, has long led the nation in executions. Arkansas, too, has “plenty of sodium thiopental on hand,” but has no scheduled executions.

And while surgical patients are suffering due to a shortage of sodium thiopental, some death penalty states are supplying it to other states facing a shortage so they can go forward with executions. The New York Times reported that Oklahoma, where the modern lethal injection protocol was first developed, “obtained a single dose of thiopental sodium from another state — it will not say which — and plans to use it to kill Donald R. Wackerly II on Oct. 14.”

Hospira, the sole domestic manufacturer of the drug, has notified death-penalty states (PDF) that it does not support the use of its drugs for capital punishment, as it manufactures the drug to improve or save lives.

It’s not enough that states are executing people who may be innocent, who had woefully inadequate lawyers, who may be mentally retarded/mentally ill, or who were convicted based on junk science or fabricated evidence — all for no documented benefit to the public safety. Now some states, despite being on notice that sodium thiopental is being manufactured for medical purposes rather than executions, are hoarding the medication while patients needing it suffer. It underscores just how perverse the use of the death penalty has become.

Texas officials may hope that they are permitted to cover up how much of the medication the state is hoarding, but it is undeniable that it and other states are now affirmatively putting our fellow human beings at unnecessary medical risk to maintain an irreparably broken system.