California’s secret death drug

Pub date November 2, 2010

California was forced to postpone the execution of convicted murderer Albert Greenwood Brown in September because the state had run out of sodium thiopental, part of the death drug cocktail used in lethal injections.

The last batch of the drug expired Oct. 1 and the manufacturer won’t have more until 2011. So as of early October, all executions had been postponed until next year.

But on Oct. 6 the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced in a court filing that it had obtained 12 grams of sodium thiopental, also known as sodium pentothal, with an expiration date of 2014. That could mean some swifter executions.

But it also raises a critical legal question: where did the drug come from, and did the state violate federal or international laws obtaining it?

CDCR isn’t talking. Terry Thornton, deputy press secretary, refused to identify the source of the newly acquired drug. But it clearly didn’t come from the manufacturer Hospira. The company, the only U.S. manufacturer of sodium pentothol, says it has none available and is in no rush to sell it to the CDCR. In a statement released by Hospira, company spokesperson Daniel Rosenberg announced that “the drug is not indicated for capital punishment and Hospira does not support its use in this procedure.”

Natasha Minsker, death penalty policy director for the ACLU of Northern California, said it would be tricky for the state to buy the drug from anyone else. “Hospira is the only approved manufacturer in the U.S.,” she said.

But there’s a hint of where California’s supply might have come from. Arizona also recently obtained some of the death drug — Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard told the Arizona Republic that it was delivered from an unidentified source in Britain.

But the British press has raised questions about the deal. No European country has the death penalty and both British and European Union laws bar exporting for profit materials used for executions.

Both the Arizona and California batches have the same expiration date.

Ty Alper, associate director of the Death Penalty Clinic at Boalt Hall School of Law, explained that to his knowledge, “California got [the sodium thiopental] from a foreign source,” He raised questions about the possible risks of obtaining the drug from an unknown outfit.

“If the drug is not FDA approved, could it have contaminants in it? Could it perform differently?” Alper asked. “If that drug doesn’t work right then, everybody knows the execution will be horribly painful and torturous.”

So far, the U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t bought that argument. Oct. 25 the court voted 5-4 to clear the way for Arizona to execute Jeffrey Landrigan, a convicted murderer. “There is no evidence in the record to suggest that the drug obtained from a foreign source is unsafe … There was no showing that the drug was unlawfully obtained, nor was there an offer of proof to that effect,” the unsigned opinion stated.

Landrigan was executed Oct 27.

However, we can’t find any evidence that California obtained the drug legally. There are no FDA-approved importers, and federal law strictly limits the ability of anyone to bring powerful drugs directly into the country. Title 21 United States Code of the Controlled Substances Act, Section(b) states: “It shall be unlawful to import into the customs territory of the United States from any place outside thereof (but within the United States), or to import into the United States from any place outside thereof, any nonnarcotic controlled substance in Schedule III, IV, or V, unless such nonnarcotic controlled substance … (1) imported for medical, scientific, or other legitimate uses”

Sodium pentothal is a Schedule III drug.

Executing a human being clearly doesn’t count as a “medical or scientific” use — no doctor is involved in administering the lethal drugs. Of course, there might be an opinion from the state attorney general concluding that killing a condemned prisoner is an “other legitimate use” but the office won’t produce one. When we asked if obtaining the drug from a foreign supplier was legal, Christine Gasparac, a spokesperson for Attorney General Jerry Brown, stated in an e-mail that “You’ll have to contact the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for a response to your questions” and that “this office was not involved in the procurement of the drug.”

CDCR hasn’t presented any import license, purchase order, chain of custody documents, or anything else to show where the deadly stuff originated. We’ve filed a written request under the California Public Records Act for the data, but have not received a reply.

That bothers state Sen. Mark Leno (D-SF), who chairs the Public Safety Committee. “I am concerned that a state agency, using taxpayer money, is buying something and refusing to disclose where the money went,” he told us.

Procuring sodium thiopental may become even harder in the future — it has only limited use in medicine.

Dr. Philip Lumb, chair of department of anesthesiology at the University of Southern California medical school, said that over the past few years the drug Propofol has replaced sodium thiopental in the majority of surgical cases. (Propofol is the same drug Michael Jackson overdosed on.)

“It is still available — we still have it,” Lumb said. “It is used sometimes for brain procedures.”

But if Hospira isn’t making much and doesn’t want to sell it to prisons for executions, and European companies can get in trouble for exporting it, California may find that a drug it relies on to kill people isn’t available from any legitimate source. Which means the custodians of our prison system could, in effect, be buying lethal drugs on the black market.

They put other people in prison for that.