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Uncle Sam's Drug-Seeking Behavior

Denny LeBoeuf,
Director, John Adams Project
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July 19, 2011

This summer, travelers should be on the lookout for some new American drug addicts, slouching around the foreign capitals where Americans abroad seek to score. They are a little older than most of the druggies, and they aren’t looking to get high. They’re looking to kill. Uncle Sam himself — or some of his states, like Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, California and Nebraska — are desperate for dope. They’ve run out of sodium thiopental, the drug that’s used to lethally inject prisoners during executions, and they’re jonesing.

It started in January, when Hospira, the only manufacturer of thiopental, quit making it. When the Italian Parliament found out that they planned to manufacture it in a suburb of Milan, they nixed the plan unless Hospira could guarantee it would never fall in the wrong hands. Meaning, say, the hands of the high officials of Georgia, Texas or Alabama. Even though Hospira said they didn’t “condone” the use of thiopental in capital punishment, they could make no such promise. When Hospira stopped supplying the drug, states turned to various international pharmacological providers, some shadier than others. Among the shadiest is Dream Pharma, essentially an office in West London above a travel agent and behind a driving academy. Reprieve, the U.K. human rights organization, was instrumental in calling attention to the London-to-death house drug delivery system that provided dope to six states for executions until the U.K. banned any such sales this spring. Seems the British had the same problem as the Italians: they believe the death penalty is a brutal relic of the past, and they are required by international human rights law not to cooperate with its imposition.

Two states were obtaining the drug from India until April when the pharmaceutical company there announced it would no longer sell to U.S. corrections officials. India does have the death penalty, but apparently the U.S. couldn’t meet its standards.

Now seriously worried about where to get the next fix, 13 states asked the federal government for some of its stored supply. Instead, the feds sent the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to seize Georgia’s suspiciously obtained stock, and then to Kentucky and Tennessee. It’s not just a problem in the South though: the DEA is also taking a hard look at Nebraska. Seems Nebraska failed to get a license to import the drug from abroad, something the DEA frowns on. Some of the states traded amongst themselves: Tennessee gave some of its drug, obtained from Dream Pharma, to Alabama and Kentucky. (One can imagine the conversations between high-ranking state justice officials. “Hello, Tennessee? Kentucky here. You holding, man? Can you help me out?”)

The word “trafficking” comes to mind.

Then Georgia got hold of some Nembutal. Texas, too. It isn’t the same thing as sodium thiopental, but Georgia Department of Corrections officials figured it was close enough, and so what if it was being used “off-label.” It’s not like they were using it to get high. And they really didn’t care that Lundbeck, the Danish manufacturer of Nembutal, was adamantly opposed to its use in executions, or that Lundbeck wrote the governors asking to cease and desist this misuse of their product. The states got the drug from some U.S. middlemen who weren’t as worried, and Georgia used it to execute Roy Blankenship on June 23.

But, as many a drug addict has found, you cannot just substitute the “next best thing” in pharmaceuticals and expect the same result. The execution of Roy Blankenship in Georgia went horribly wrong. According to an AP reporter who attended, Blankenship lurched, gasped, and jerked around on the gurney after the injection, and was making swallowing motions a full three minutes later. He did not become motionless until four minutes had passed, was not declared dead for several minutes more. His eyes never closed.

But a junkie will use what a junkie can score. Georgia and Texas are both planning to use Nembutal next Wednesday, to kill Andrew DeYoung and Mark Stroman. They have enough to get their fix a few more times, then this stock, too, will run out. Lundbeck, the Danish manufacturer, announced on July 1 that it would institute a special distribution plan for Nembutal in the United States to ensure that it could not ever again be misused in executions. The new plan requires review of every purchase and the identity of every purchaser — the way the drugstores do with the cold remedies that you can use to make meth. Mark Olive, longtime capital defense lawyer from Florida, once wondered over the phone to me why the American distributor, CardinalHealth in Ohio, wasn’t trying to recall the drug, the way companies pulled those cold remedies off the shelves.

Denmark, the U.K., India and Italy have all refused to supply U.S. states with their next fix of death penalty drugs. One has to wonder: having failed to score in so many places, where will the executioners turn when the stash gets low again?

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