published Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

Georgia execution drug supply to expire

This is the death chamber at the state prison in Jackson, Ga.
This is the death chamber at the state prison in Jackson, Ga.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

ATLANTA — Georgia's supply of the single drug it uses to perform executions is set to expire next month, and state officials haven't said whether they've found a way to get more of the powerful sedative that is in relatively short supply.

The state has 17 vials of pentobarbital, which is enough for six lethal injections, corrections officials said. Georgia Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan did not respond to questions about what the state might be doing to obtain more pentobarbital, but she said the state doesn't intend to change its execution method.

Georgia changed its execution protocol from a three-drug combination to a single-drug method using pentobarbital in July. It had been using pentobarbital to sedate inmates before injecting pancuronium bromide to paralyze them and then potassium chloride to stop their hearts.

The state has two executions scheduled this week. Warren Lee Hill is set to be executed this evening, and Andrew Allen Cook is set to be put to death Thursday evening.

A number of states have grappled with difficulties securing drugs for executions in recent years as manufacturers of the drugs, which generally have other medical purposes, said they didn't want their drugs used for executions.

Georgia began using pentobarbital as part of its three-drug combination in 2011 after another drug, sodium thiopental, became unavailable when its European supplier bowed to pressure from death penalty opponents and stopped making it. But now pentobarbital appears to be in relatively short supply as well.

Denmark-based Lundbeck Inc., the only U.S.-licensed maker of pentobarbital, sold the product to another firm in 2011. Lundbeck said a distribution system meant to keep the drug out of the hands of prisons would remain in place after Lake Forest, Ill.-based Akorn Inc. acquired the drug.

"It's a problem for states," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "They keep having to switch drugs when the supply gets difficult, so they keep having to write different protocols and get them approved."

But it's very difficult to tell exactly how much pentobarbital is out there and available to states for executions or what other options states are considering because corrections officials aren't always forthcoming with details about their execution method plans, Dieter said.

There has been some indication that some states may turn to compounding pharmacies to get pentobarbital. Such pharmacies custom-mix solutions, creams and other medications in doses or forms that generally aren't commercially available.

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