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January 22, 2011

Company Halts Production of Death Penalty Drug

This has been slowly bubbling into the major media, though it's been coming for a long time. Hospira, the sole U.S. company that makes sodium thiopental, one of the drugs used for lethal injections, has announced that it will produce no more. Hospira has objected in the past to use of the drug for capital punishment, but claims to regret having to end production because the anesthetic has legitimate medical uses in hospitals.

Hospira said it decided in recent months to switch manufacturing from its North Carolina plant to a more modern Hospira factory in Liscate, Italy. But Italian authorities demanded a guarantee the drug would not be used to put inmates to death - an assurance the company said it was not willing to give.

"We cannot take the risk that we will be held liable by the Italian authorities if the product is diverted for use in capital punishment," Hospira spokesman Dan Rosenberg said. "Exposing our employees or facilities to liability is not a risk we are prepared to take."

Italian Health Ministry officials were not immediately available for comment.

All but one of the 35 states that employ lethal injection use sodium thiopental. In nearly every case, they use it as part of a three-drug combination that sedates and paralyzes the inmate and stops the heart.

. . .

In the fall, states including Arizona, Arkansas, California and Tennessee turned to sodium thiopental made in Britain. That supply dried up after the British government in November banned its export for use in executions.

Arizona, California, Kentucky, Ohio, and Oklahoma have had delays because of shortages, which will no doubt become worse when the small existing supply expires this year. Switching to a new drug will certainly provoke another round of legal challenges, despite the Supreme Court's recent rejection of the "cruel and unusual" argument.

Long-time readers of the blog know that I oppose capital punishment in most cases, though not on any bogus constitutional "cruel and unusual punishment" grounds. Drug shortages seem to me to be another contrived roadblock to lethal injection.

There is an elaborate legal dance to execution in this country. Carrying out a sentence of death has become a secular ritual, with exacting requirements for timing, procedure, and participants. Even judges who uphold the death penalty seem to add to these requirements, making it in fact harder to complete executions. That's really what the shortage worries are about. Hospira has upset the ritual.

I never understood the hand-wringing over whether a drug or a procedure could be found to kill that is relatively quick and painless because it seems to me that thousands of veterinarians employ such a drug every day. Unless you're now going to tell me that they've actually been torturing our elderly animals to death, the drug problem seems to have a pretty common-sense solution.

Indeed my home state still has some common sense:

Oklahoma has gone a different route, switching to pentobarbital, an anesthetic commonly used to put cats and dogs to sleep. The state has conducted two executions with that drug.

Pentobarbital is also used in Oregon's physician-assisted suicides, as well as legal suicides in the Netherlands and (until it was banned) Australia.


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posted by Gabriel Malor at 11:10 AM

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