Shortage of Execution Drugs on the Firing Line

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Maybe Texas just needs to fire up Ol' Sparky again. With the pace of executions in the state, it's fast running out of pentobarbital, the drug of choice for lethal injections, and its supply has dried up after its manufacturer cut off supplies under pressure from death-penalty opponents.

Texas, like 12 other states that use lethal injection, used a three-drug cocktail to carry out executions. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, pentobarbital, or sodium thiopental is used as an anesthetic, pancuronium bromide is then injected as a paralytic, and potassium chloride is administered last to stop the heart and bring on death.

However, Texas was forced to move to a one-drug lethal injection after sodium thiopental supplier Hospira cut off supply of the drug following the Italian government's objection to its use in executions after the company wanted to move manufacturing facilities there. Like seven other states, the Lone Star State began administering massive, lethal doses of pentobarbital instead to effect the execution.

Now that drug also can't be found, after its Danish manufacturer, Lundbeck, declared it was unsafe for use in lethal injections and halted shipments of it to U.S. prisons.

There are alternatives available, but courts have not yet approved their use. Missouri, for example, wants to use propofol, which is what Michael Jackson's doctor was convicted of injecting him with when the pop singer overdosed.

Hospira was one of three manufacturers of propofol until a contamination problem sent Teva Pharmaceuticals and Fresenius subsidiary APP Pharmaceuticals scurrying and suspended production. Teva was sued and had to pay some $800 million in damages and ceased production as a result, while both Hospira and APP resumed their manufacture. Yet because anesthesiologists view it as their go-to drug, it remains in short supply, and if states start administering it, they may face additional shortages as well.

The approved methods of execution in addition to lethal injection include electrocution and the gas chamber, as well as hanging and the firing squad. Considering the shortages of ammunition sparked by fears of gun control and massive government purchases, that last one might not be a viable alternative at the moment.

Amongst the 32 states that use executions, by far the most popular means is lethal injection because it's seen as the most humane. Which is ironic, because those individuals and places that oppose the practice altogether may end up forcing the use of more "inhumane" methods by creating a scarcity of resources.

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