U.K. Limits Execution Drug's Export
The U.K., in a decision to underscore its "moral opposition to the death penalty," plans to limit the export of a drug used widely in U.S. executions. The U.K. government said Monday in a London court that it would issue an order requiring anyone supplying the anesthetic thiopental sodium to the U.S. to first obtain an export license.
Licenses will be denied if a risk exists that thiopental will be used in executions, said a government spokesman. The decision follows a lawsuit filed this month in U.K's High Court on behalf of condemned Tennessee inmate Edmund Zagorski. The suit was prompted by the state's alleged ordering of thiopental from a foreign source, possibly in the U.K., to carry out Mr. Zagorski's execution. The suit sought a U.K. ban on thiopental exports.
The move could complicate future executions, as the sole U.S. supplier of thiopental announced earlier this year it won't have a new batch ready until the first quarter of 2011, at the earliest. The shortage of the drug has sent states scrambling for alternative sources—or alternative drugs. Last week, Oklahoma received a judge's approval to use pentobarbital, which has been used in animal euthanasia, for human executions.
Arizona executed inmate Jeffrey Landrigan last month using thiopental from the U.K.
California, which has put off one execution in part due to the thiopental shortage, announced last week that it has ordered a large supply of thiopental that won't expire until 2014. It is believed this supply was secured overseas, since Hospira Inc., the U.S. maker of the drug, has said its current domestic supply of thiopental expires in 2011.
"It's difficult to comment on legislation we haven't had the opportunity to review," Hospira said in a statement Monday, "but we support the use of thiopental in medically necessary proceduresto improve or save lives, …and we're supportive of rules that provide that drugs are only used for medically necessary purposes."
A spokeswoman with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said the state won't disclose the source of its incoming thiopental supply due to ongoing litigation challenging "all aspects of California's execution regulations and procedures."
"We have no idea where the drugs [California is] getting were made, but we know they were not made by any legitimate manufacturer in the U.S.," said Natasha Minsker, a death-penalty specialist with The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California sued this month to require California to disclose the source of its thiopental.
As with California, Tennessee authorities have declined to detail their source of thiopental. "We have looked at a number of different providers of thiopental sodium in the United States, some of which have sources overseas," said Dorinda Carter, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Correction.
Thiopental is also made in India and Italy.
The U.K.'s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills announced the export controls in a court filing responding to the Zagorski suit, stating that the export controls on thiopental serve "to underline the United Kingdom's moral opposition to the death penalty."
The agency also said it will seek European Union-wide limits on thiopental exports. Italy's Green Party separately has sought limits on the drug's export, contending it violates the Italian Constitution. The U.K. announcement Monday "will make things more difficult for states trying to obtain thiopental" for executions, said Jamie Beagent, an attorney representing Mr. Zagorksi. "Hopefully this will kick start a wider effort to limit the supply of the drug from other European countries."
Mr. Beagent said his research indicates that the drug is made in Germany and Italy, but he has not been able to determine whether these countries have exported thiopental to the U.S. for lethal injections..