States accused of trying to import illegal execution drugs

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TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Compounding the nation's severe shortage of execution drugs, federal authorities have seized shipments of a lethal-injection chemical that Arizona and Texas tried to bring in from abroad, saying the imports were illegal.

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"Courts have concluded that sodium thiopental for the injection in humans is an unapproved drug and may not be imported into the country for this purpose," Food and Drug Administration spokesman Jeff Ventura said in a statement.

In addition, the FDA bars importation of drugs from manufacturers that are not approved by the agency, a rule intended to protect Americans from impure or otherwise dangerous pharmaceuticals. Sodium thiopental is no longer made by any FDA-approved companies.

Arizona paid nearly $27,000 for sodium thiopental, an anesthetic that has long been used in executions, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. Federal agents intercepted the shipment when it arrived via British Airways at the Phoenix airport in July, the documents show.

The documents do not reveal what country or company Arizona tried to import the drugs from.

Texas and FDA authorities gave even fewer details about the seizure there.

Death penalty states have been struggling to obtain execution chemicals for several years after European companies refused to sell the drugs. States have had to change drug combinations or put executions on hold while they look for other options. Tennessee brought back the electric chair as a backup method of execution, and Utah did the same with the firing squad.

Earlier this year, Nebraska was told by the FDA that it could not legally import lethal-injection chemicals after the state paid $54,400 for drugs from Harris Pharma, a distributor in India. The FDA would not say Friday whether it confiscated those drugs.

Officials in Arizona said they believe the drugs seized there are legal.

"The department is contesting FDA's legal authority to continue to withhold the state's execution chemicals," Arizona Corrections Department spokesman Andrew Wilder said.

In Texas, the state Department of Criminal Justice is "addressing the lawful status of imports with the Food and Drug Administration and is awaiting their decision," spokesman Jason Clark said in a statement.

Other states have also looked into buying drugs from international pharmacies. Ohio, which has halted executions until at least 2017 because of a lack of drugs, sent a letter earlier this month to the FDA asserting that the state believes it can obtain a lethal-injection drug overseas without violating any laws.

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The AP obtained the Arizona documents as part of a lawsuit against the corrections department over transparency in executions.

Executions have been put on hold in Arizona following the drawn-out death of Joseph Rudolph Wood in July 2014. The state has said it doesn't plan on seeking death warrants for inmates until it resolves a lawsuit originally filed by Wood and other death row inmates seeking information about the drugs used in executions.

Wood, convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend and her father, snorted repeatedly throughout the 90 minutes it took for him to die. Authorities later revealed he was given 15 doses of midazolam and a painkiller. He was supposed to die with one dose.

"Once again, the Arizona Department of Corrections is trying to skirt the law in order to get execution drugs. Nobody is above the law, and that includes the Arizona Department of Corrections," said Wood's attorney, Dale Baich.

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Associated Press reporters Matthew Perrone in Washington, Michael Graczyk in Houston, Bob Christie in Phoenix and Terry Wallace in Dallas contributed to this report. Pritchard reported from Los Angeles.

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