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The execution drug shortage

I find myself morbidly fascinated by this.

Forced to repeatedly alter the formula of its lethal injections as drug makers curb sales to executioners, Texas prison officials are stockpiling an array of alternate pharmaceuticals, none of which yet has been used to put killers to death.

Confirmation of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s purchase of other drugs came as a second vendor said it has asked the agency to return a supply of drugs it purchased for use in executions. The drug in question is propofol, the sedative linked to pop star Michael Jackson’s June 2009 death.

Hospira, the Chicago-area pharmaceutical firm that manufactures propofol, has “publicly objected to the use of any of our products in capital punishment.”

Hospira spokesman Dan Rosenberg on Tuesday said his company has asked the Department of Criminal Justice to return its stock of propofol.


Texas exhausted its supply of pentobarbital, the nation’s most popular execution drug, after two September executions. The manufacturer announced two years ago it no longer would provide the drug for executions.

With seven more executions scheduled through February, executioners turned to The Woodlands Compounding Pharmacy to make the drug on special order. The Department of Criminal Justice ordered eight 2.5-gram vials; a fatal dose consists of five grams.

Pharmacy owner Jasper Lovoi last week demanded the agency return the vials for a refund as he was stunned by the public outcry that arose when his pharmacy’s role in supplying the drug became public. Clark said the state will not return the pentobarbital. The drug has been used to execute 13 convicted killers this year. Since executions resumed in Texas in 1981, 505 prisoners have been put to death by lethal injections.

Department of Criminal Justice officials last year fought efforts to make it disclose the amount of lethal drugs it owned, citing concerns that drug makers or sellers could face potentially violent harassment if their identities were discovered. Attorney General Greg Abbott ordered the information released.

In 2011, Texas was forced to abandon its original three-drug execution formula when European death penalty opponents successfully lobbied the drug’s maker to stop sales of sodium thiopental to executioners. Pentobarbital was substituted and became the only death-dealing drug used in Texas a year later when the maker of pancuronium bromide halted sales.

TM Daily Post sums up the state of affairs.

In other words, the invisible hand of the market is increasingly uncomfortable participating in executions. Whether the reticence comes from European manufacturers who oppose the use of their drugs for cultural reasons, or from American compounding pharmacies who fear the next FOIA request that’ll out them as the supplier, the day could come when there just aren’t any more lethal injections to be had.

In Texas, what happens next is complicated: State law requires all executions to be carried out by lethal injection, and unless there’s yet another special legislative session called to change the law, TDCJ will either have to continue to scramble for vials of deadly drugs or suspend executions until the legislature meets again in 2015. Texas has never seemed interested in delaying executions, so it’s hard to know what’ll happen.

It’s also hard to know what might replace lethal injections, if and when the supply of drugs fully dries up. Every state in which executions remain legal use lethal injection as the primary method of killing prisoners, but others have backup options available to them: electrocution, gas chambers, hanging, and firing squads remain legal in other parts of the country. Texas could well turn to one of these methods if lethal injections are ended by market forces.

I have to say, I’m a little surprised that this hasn’t turned into an issue in the GOP primary for Lt. Governor, which has otherwise been a cesspool xenophobia, fear-mongering, and macho chest-thumping. Surely one of the gentlemen pursuing that nomination would be willing to make it one of his priorities to ensure an unending supply of lethal injection drugs for death row inmates. To be honest, I’m equally surprised that there isn’t some right-wing billionaire out there willing to put up the venture capital for a pharmaceutical startup that specialized in said concoctions. This is a golden opportunity for someone, if only he would take it.

For that matter, I don’t know why one of the Lite Guv hopefuls hasn’t called for Texas to quit messing with all this sissy injection stuff and get back to its roots. We love our guns here in Texas, am I right? So why don’t we bring back the firing squad? Hell, I bet the first Lite Guv candidate that volunteers to be the firing squad at the next execution wins his race in the first round. And why stop there? Let’s turn this into a revenue-raising opportunity while we’re at it. Auction off the right to be Executioner For A Day to anyone who wants it. For bids beginning at $100,000, you get to dispatch a convicted killer to his reward with an automatic weapon fired from a helicopter. Is this Republican primary gold or what? I can’t believe I have to be the one to think this stuff up for these guys. The Observer has more.

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