Executions postponed due to shortage of lethal injection drug
Some executions in the United States have been put on hold because of a shortage of one of the drugs used in lethal injections.
Several of the 35 states that rely on lethal injection are struggling to secure supplies of sodium thiopental - an anaesthetic that renders the condemned inmate unconscious - or considering using another drug.
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 secure the drug in time for its next execution next month. Officials in California said the shortage would force it to stop executions on Friday, three hours after an inmate is scheduled to die, when its stock expires.
The sole US manufacturer, Hospira, 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 sceptical of Hospira's explanation, noting that the company has made it clear it objects to its drugs being used for executions. Hospira also makes the two other chemicals used in lethal injections.
Sodium thiopental is a barbiturate, used primarily to anaesthetise patients for surgery and to induce medical comas. Some 33 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 given: pancuronium bromide, to paralyse muscles, and potassium chloride, to stop the heart.
Ohio and Washington use just one drug to carry out executions: a single, extra-large dose of sodium thiopental.
As for the possibility of obtaining the drug elsewhere, the Food & Drug Administration said there are no FDA-approved manufacturers of sodium thiopental overseas.
Switching to another drug would be difficult for some states. Some adopted their execution procedures after lengthy court proceedings, and changing drugs could take time and invite lawsuits.
In the spring, Hospira sent a letter to all states outlining its discomfort at its drugs being used for executions, as it has done periodically.
"Hospira provides these products because they improve or save lives and markets them solely for use as indicated on the product labelling," Kees Groenhout, clinical research and development vice-president, said in a letter to the state of Ohio."As such, we do not support the use of any of our products in capital punishment procedures."
Jonathan Groner, an Ohio State University surgeon and death penalty opponent who researches the issue, speculated that the real reason for the unavailability of sodium thiopental is its medical uses "have shrunk to the point the company doesn't want to make a drug that has no use but to kill people".
However, Mr Rosenberg said the shortage has nothing to do with that.
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