Lethal Injection Drug in Short Supply

January 31, 2011

A new issue emerged in recent months surrounding the administration of the death penalty in the United States: a nation-wide shortage of thiopental sodium, one of the drugs used in lethal injections.  Several stories noted the shortage and its possible ramifications.  See here, here, here, and here.

Last week, the only U.S.-based manufacturer of the drug announced it would no longer be producing it.  The linked story explains why:

The manufacturer, Hospira Inc., of Lake Forest, Ill., had originally planned to resume production of the drug, sodium thiopental, this winter at a plant in Italy, giving state corrections departments hope that the scarcity that began last fall would ease.

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” and the company did not want to expose itself to liability in Italy.

Due to the shortage, Oklahoma executed an individual in December using phenobarbital as a substitute for thiopental sodium.  Other states, including Ohio, are poised to make the same switch.

Filings / Arguments citing the shortage: Death row inmates facing execution have begun to cite the drug shortage in efforts to delay their executions.  I ran a search on Westlaw in the State and Federal Civil Trial Court Filings (FILING-ALL) and BRIEF-ALL databases for: THIOPENTAL PHENOBARBITAL & “DEATH PENALTY” “CAPITAL PUNISHMENT” “LETHAL INJECTION” EXECUTE EXECUTION EXECUTED EXECUTING & da(2010 2011).  Among the results are at least a few documents that note the shortage of the drug.