States Depend on Unapproved Foreign Drugs for Executions

U.S. shortage of lethal-injection drug forces some states to shop abroad.

ByABC News
February 7, 2011, 5:35 PM

Feb. 8, 2011 -- Arizona death-row inmate Daniel Wayne Cook fears that when the day of his execution arrives, he will be put to death with a drug from a supplier who works out of a rented space at the rear of a West London driving school called the El Gone Driving Academy.

Because of a U.S. shortage of sodium thiopental, which is the first of three drugs used for most lethal-injection executions, some states have resorted to importing the drug from foreign sources.

Cook, convicted of a double murder in 1987, has filed suit in federal court, concerned that the non-FDA approved drug from Dream Pharma, the little-known West London supplier, might lead to pain and distress at his execution.

The lone U.S. supplier of the drug stopped production in 2009 and several of the 35 states that allow lethal injection have found themselves in short supply. The shortage has raised concerns about whether the drug should be imported from foreign sources at all or whether states should change their protocols to allow for the use of more readily available drugs.

Thiopental is used to induce a coma-like unconsciousness. It is followed by injection of another drug that paralyzes the inmate and a third that induces cardiac arrest. If the first drug is ineffective, a prisoner might feel tremendous pain by the time the third drug is injected.

Challenges are popping up across the country from death-row inmates who say that importing the drug from relatively unknown suppliers such as Dream Pharma means a lack of U.S. regulation and the reality that the drug might not work effectively, causing a prisoner to experience a cruel death.

But such challenges have largely failed in court. In one case, a U.S. District Court judge delayed the execution of Jeffrey T. Landrigan, expressing concern about the origins of the sodium thiopental.

"The Court concludes that use of sodium thiopental from a non-FDA approved source raises issues regarding its efficacy and possible side effects," Judge Roslyn O. Silver wrote.