The Politics of the Execution Drug

When a prisoner is sentenced to death by lethal injection, a series of three drugs is traditionally administered.  The first one is a general anaesthetic, intended to prevent the prisoners from suffering while the other two drugs shut them down.

The anaesthetic of choice has long been sodium thiopental, better known in the U.S. by the trade name under which it was once marketed, sodium pentothal – the legendary “truth serum.”  The only remaining manufacturer of sodium thiopental, up until this year, was Hospira, which never officially approved of using its drug for executions.

Hospira manufactured sodium thiopental overseas, and found itself running afoul of European authorities, who strongly oppose the sale of drugs used in lethal injections to the United States.  In fact, earlier this year, the German Medical Association joined their country’s health ministry in calling on all German drug companies to refuse American requests for sodium thiopental.  “We are calling on the German pharmaceutical industry to send a clear signal that it recognizes its ethical responsibility and refrain from selling any drugs to the United States that could be used in carrying out the death penalty,” GMA president Frank Ulrich Montgomery told the Associated Press.  Britain has also banned exports of sodium thiopental.

This led Hospira to discontinue production of the drug, leaving lethal-injection states such as Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky with a small stockpile… which the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency suddenly swept in and confiscated.    Supposedly the DEA had concerns about the way the drug was imported, but when asked for details, they referred all questions to the Justice Department… which quickly erected one of the stone walls that have become its specialty under Attorney General Eric Holder.

This had the practical effect of shutting down executions by lethal injection, although some states are trying to resume these procedures using other drugs, such as pentobarbital. 

By an interesting coincidence, Eric Holder is personally opposed to the death penalty. 

In another interesting coincidence, the DEA never got around to raiding California, which columnist Debra Saunders pointed out had already put its executions on hold.  She summed up the absurdity of the situation as follows: “The DOJ has directed the DEA to investigate corrections departments for possessing a drug in shipments approved by the FDA for a punishment upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

The behavior of the Justice Department in this matter has been described as “strange” by many observers.  Perhaps it is best understood by seeing capital punishment as the latest of many areas in which the judgment of local voters must be over-ruled by the wise and all-knowing federal government, using any and all means necessary.