COLUMBUS, Ohio — Some executions in the U.S. have been put on hold because of a shortage of one of the drugs used in lethal injections from coast to coast.
Several of the 35 states that rely on lethal injection are either scrambling to find sodium thiopental — an anesthetic that renders the condemned inmate unconscious — or considering using another drug. But both routes are strewn with legal or ethical roadblocks.
The shortage delayed an Oklahoma execution last month and led Kentucky's governor to postpone the signing of death warrants for two inmates. Arizona is trying to get its hands on the drug in time for its next execution, in late October. California, with an inmate set to die on Wednesday, said the shortage will force it to stop executions after Sept. 30.
The sole U.S. manufacturer, Hospira Inc. of Lake Forest, Ill., has blamed the shortage on unspecified problems with its raw-material suppliers and said new batches of sodium thiopental will not be available until January at the earliest.
Nine states have a total of 17 executions scheduled between now and the end of January, including Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.
"We are working to get it back onto the market for our customers as soon as possible," Hospira spokesman Dan Rosenberg said.
But at least one death penalty expert was skeptical of Hospira's explanation, noting that the company has made it clear it objects to using its drugs for executions. Hospira also makes the two other chemicals used in lethal injections.
Sodium thiopental is a barbiturate, used primarily to anesthetize surgical patients and induce medical comas. It is also used to help terminally ill people commit suicide and sometimes to euthanize animals.
Thirty-three of the states that have lethal injection employ the three-drug combination that was created in the 1970s: First, sodium thiopental is given by syringe to put the inmate to sleep. Then two other drugs are administered: pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes muscles, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.
Ohio and Washington state use just one drug to carry out executions: a single, extra-large dose of sodium thiopental.
Hospira has blamed the shortage on "raw-material supplier issues" since last spring, first promising availability in July, then October, then early 2011. The company has refused to elaborate on the problem. But according to a letter obtained by The Associated Press from the Kentucky governor's office, Hospira told state officials that it lost its sole supplier of the drug's active ingredient and was trying to find a new one.
As for the possibility of obtaining the drug elsewhere, the Food and Drug Administration said there are no FDA-approved manufacturers of sodium thiopental overseas.
Switching to another anesthetic would be difficult for some states. Some, like California, Missouri and Kentucky, adopted their execution procedures after lengthy court proceedings, and changing drugs could take time and invite lawsuits.
Obtaining sodium thiopental from hospitals does not appear to be an option, either. Sodium thiopental has been largely supplanted by other anesthetics in the U.S., and hospitals do not stock much of it.
Also, drug purchasing and use rules — and ethical guidelines that bar the medical profession from getting involved in executions — could prevent hospitals from supplying prisons with the drug, according to industry experts.
"Many of these cases, the victims have waited for 20 years, some of them longer than that. If we're out of that drug, we need to have an alternative," said Tennessee state Sen. Jim Tracy. Tennessee said it has enough of the drug for a November execution and expects to be able to carry out another in December.
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