- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 20, 2016

HOUSTON (AP) - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is refusing to back down from its decision to block the Texas prison system from importing a drug that could be used for capital punishment in the state that carries out the most executions in the nation.

The decision from the FDA comes after the Texas Department of Criminal Justice had appealed the federal agency’s decision last year to impound a sodium thiopental shipment the state purchased from a supplier outside the country. The FDA has said the drug has no legal uses in the U.S.

Texas prison department spokesman Jason Clark on Wednesday described the FDA decision, contained in a letter dated last Friday, as tentative and said department officials were reviewing it. The prison system is “exploring its options moving forward regarding the lawful importation of drugs used in the lethal injection process,” Clark said.

FDA spokesman Christopher Kelly said the dispute “remains an ongoing proceeding and the agency has no further comment.”

Corrections departments in death penalty states around the U.S. have had difficulties obtaining execution drugs since traditional drug manufacturers, many of them under pressure from capital punishment opponents, have barred sales of their products for lethal injection use.

Texas has been using the sedative pentobarbital in executions since 2012, and Clark said the state has enough of that drug to carry out punishments now scheduled. Two inmates are set to die in June; they’re among at least eight scheduled for execution in the coming months.

Texas prison officials have declined to provide any details about its ordered drugs. A state law that took effect in September allows Texas to withhold the identity of its lethal injection drug provider.

Clark said the prison agency legally obtained an import license from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration before the shipment of the anesthetic was purchased, filed notice with the DEA of the anticipated shipment, and that both the FDA and customs officials properly were notified of its arrival.

Sodium thiopental previously was part of a three-drug mixture Texas used for executions. Clark said the state has no plans to change from its current practice of using just pentobarbital in executions. That drug has been administered to 55 convicted killers with no unusual occurrences.

“TDCJ cannot speculate on the future availability drugs, so we continue to explore all options including the continued use of pentobarbital or alternate drugs to use in the lethal injection process,” Clark said.

Court filings in death penalty cases have described the Texas prison agency’s pentobarbital supplier as a licensed compounding pharmacy. Attorneys for some condemned inmates have argued pharmacies like that don’t receive the same level of government scrutiny as mainstream commercial drug manufacturers.

Texas’ 13 lethal injections last year accounted for almost half of the 28 executions nationwide. Of the 12 executions in the U.S. so far this year, six have been in Texas.

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