ATLANTA | Prison officials across the country have been going to extraordinary and in at least one case, legally questionable lengths to obtain a scarce lethal-injection drug, securing it from middlemen in Britain and a manufacturer in India and borrowing it from other states to keep their executions on schedule, according to records reviewed by the Associated Press.
“You guys in AZ are life savers,” California prisons official Scott Kernan emailed a counterpart in Arizona, with what may have been unintentional irony, in appreciation for 12 grams of the drug sent in September. “Buy you a beer next time I get that way.”
The wheeling and dealing come amid a severe shortage of sodium thiopental, a sedative that is part of the three-drug lethal-injection solution used by nearly all 34 death penalty states. The shortage started last year, after Hospira Inc., the sole U.S. manufacturer of the drug and the only sodium-thiopental maker approved by the Food and Drug Administration, stopped making it.
As supplies dwindled, at least six states Arizona, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Nebraska and Tennessee obtained sodium thiopental overseas, with some citing Georgia as the trailblazer.
Documents obtained through open-records requests show Georgia managed to execute inmates in September and January after getting the drug from Dream Pharma, a distributor that shares a building with a driving school in a gritty London neighborhood. Dream Pharma’s owner has not returned several calls and emails for comment, and an AP reporter who visited the office last week was told the owner was not available.
Recently, however, the Drug Enforcement Administration seized Georgia’s entire supply effectively blocking the scheduling of any further executions because of concerns over whether the state circumvented the law. “We had questions about how the drug was imported to the U.S.,” agency spokesman Chuvalo Truesdell said, declining to elaborate.
Federal regulations require states to register with the DEA before importing a controlled substance and to notify the agency once they have it. John Bentivoglio, a former Justice Department attorney who represents a condemned Georgia inmate, said in a February letter that Georgia appears to have broken those rules, and that such violations mean “adulterated, counterfeit or otherwise ineffective” sodium thiopental could be used in executions, subjecting prisoners to extreme pain in violation of the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Georgia Corrections Department spokeswoman Joan Heath said only that the state is cooperating with federal investigators to “make sure we’re in regulatory compliance with the DEA over how we handle controlled substances.”
Kathryn Hamoudah of Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty praised the DEA for forcing Georgia to “give up its black market drugs.”
Defense attorneys elsewhere have called on the Justice Department to investigate whether their states broke the law in the way they obtained sodium thiopental. But most of the states that swapped or imported it have said they followed protocol. And the DEA has refused to say whether it is investigating them.
According to the DEA, states can share or sell each other doses of the drug as long as both sides are registered with the agency and the substance was imported properly.
The documents obtained by AP show that authorities in Kentucky frantically reached out to more than two dozen other states, several companies and the federal Bureau of Prisons throughout 2010 in the hope of finding sodium thiopental. Kentucky even considered carrying out three executions in quick succession before the state’s supply expired. Kentucky officials were getting rejected everywhere they turned.
“I am beginning to think drug companies and suppliers are not real happy to have to supply us for this use,” Phil Parker, warden of the Kentucky State Penitentiary, wrote in a July email. He was right. Hospira has publicly objected to the use of its drugs in executions.
Kentucky finally bought 18 grams last month from a Georgia pharmacy.