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State Looks Bad over Execution Anesthetic

By: Robert Nelson, Omaha World Herald | Published Friday December 9, 2011

In the past 12 months, Nebraska officials twice have tried to buy the increasingly hard-to-find drug sodium thiopental for use in executions by lethal injection.

Both times, the state has acquired the drug more in a manner you would expect from a desperate drug addict than a state government.

Last December, because the drug no longer is manufactured in the United States, the Department of Correctional Services went searching the international market, eventually paying $2,056 for 500 grams of the drug from Kayem Pharmaceuticals. The tiny Mumbai, India, startup company deals primarily in rash creams and herbal male-enhancement drugs.

After federal officials told state corrections personnel that the purchase was illegal, the state then paid $5,411 for 485 grams of the drug from a man who, according to executives at the Swiss pharmaceutical company that manufactured the drug, obtained the drug under false pretenses. Now, the Swiss company wants the drug back.

Notice, too, that the second time, the state paid more than twice as much for the same drug.

What an embarrassment.

So maybe we just go ahead and admit that the state’s attempts to use sodium thiopental, a fast-acting anesthetic meant to knock out condemned prisoners before they receive the drug that quickly kills them, is not only a dead end, but a pursuit so desperate and shady that it is besmirching the good name of the state.

Besides, sodium thiopental has been made pretty much impossible to get, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., an organization that takes no stance on capital punishment. “There just aren’t any pharmaceutical companies left that want to be associated with making drugs that kill people.”

“Most states other than Nebraska have given up on the drug,” he said. “Everyone has basically moved on.”

Here’s the problem, though:

“The states that have moved on to the next logical anesthesia are already having their own problems.”

That drug is pentobarbital, which is more widely used around the world as an anesthetic than sodium thiopental and, thus, at least right now, more easily attained.

Supplies of this drug are starting to dwindle. This summer, the Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck took steps to block the use of its pentobarbital in U.S. executions. The United Kingdom already had blocked sales of the drug to this country.

“You have this growing pressure now in countries outside the United States to stop any potential association with capital punishment in this country. Europeans broadly look at this as a barbaric act.”

Dieter was not intending to give advice, but …

“If Nebraska just moves to pentobarbital, which is the typical next step, the state will probably soon face problems with that drug also.”

Not just with supply, but with potential challenges that the drug isn’t always effective in rendering condemned prisoners unconscious before administration of the second, lethal drug, potassium chloride, “which causes great pain if the first drug doesn’t work.”

“Georgia had an inmate who appeared to be conscious and suffering through the process,” Dieter said. “That hasn’t stopped the use of the pentobarbital because the Supreme Court says that suspicion of suffering is not enough. There must be proof.”

Some states, he said, are beginning to look into the next logical fast-acting anesthetic, propofol.

There are two other paths that states have taken to avoid potential problems with hard-to-acquire drugs. If Nebraska officials want to stay ahead of the lethal drug curve, they may want to take the path of Oklahoma or Ohio.

Oklahoma has now given authority to its corrections officials to determine the drugs used in executions, Dieter said.

In Nebraska, corrections officials would have to go through a series of steps, including public hearings and presentations to state legislators, to switch from sodium thiopental, said Dawn-Renee Smith, a state corrections spokeswoman.

Ohio has gone away from the three-drug death cocktail, instead using only a high dose of pentobarbital to execute condemned prisoners.

But that single-dose method, while ensuring there’s no problem “with the subject experiencing pain from the second drug,” he said, has its own problems.

“It takes a long time,” he said. “Prison officials hate it because you can have all the witnesses, the family, the media, everyone there for maybe 45 minutes. That single-drug method is considered pretty rough on everyone involved.”

There has been no serious discussion in any states, Dieter said, about changing from lethal injection to some other method of execution.

“There’s not some new technology,” he said. “At this point, it’s widely considered by states that they will always be able to find some drug to use for lethal injections.”

What does seem to be changing, he said, “is that this is all becoming less of an issue.”

“The number of lethal injections around the country is dropping, and states appear to be less and less likely to give out a sentence of death.

“In some ways, it’s as though the death penalty itself is fading from favor in this country.”

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