States plea to AG for help getting execution drugs

Fifteen U.S. states want the Justice Department to help them get an execution drug. Death penalty opponents are pressuring drugmakers to bar lethal-injection drugs from death-row prisons. It's just the latest in a months-long tangle prompted by sudden shortages of anesthetics that states use to execute prisoners.

As Reuters reports, 15 state attorneys general wrote to U.S. AG Eric Holder, asking his department to appeal a court decision barring non-FDA-approved versions of sodium thiopental from the U.S. The states want to be able to import the drug now that FDA-approved products are no longer made; inmates sued to challenge those imports. "It may complicate the lives of state correctional officials, but we certainly don't think they should be using unlawful, unapproved drugs in their execution protocols," the inmates' lawyer told Reuters.

States have been struggling to procure anesthetics for use in executions; in one case, a drug was sourced from a U.K. distributor not authorized to sell it. European companies, including the Danish drugmaker Lundbeck, have tried to keep their products out of death-penalty prisons. And after the FDA ordered unapproved, recalled versions of sodium thiopental removed from U.S. prisons, the state of Nebraska refused to hand it over.

Which brings us to the anti-execution-drug efforts. As Pharmalot reports, prominent doctors from various countries published a letter in The Lancet, pleading with Hospira ($HSP) CEO Michael Ball to restrict supplies of Pancuronium, one of three components of a lethal-injection cocktail. Now, a U.K. charity known as Reprieve is asking the company to sign an oath saying their drugs will be used to help, not harm. The group plans to ask others for the same pledge.

It was Hospira's decision to stop making sodium thiopental that triggered the shortage; the company stopped production in the U.S. after some manufacturing issues arose, then tried to move it to Italy. But Italian officials wanted assurances that the drug would be kept out of prisons' hands--a difficult task, given drug distribution methods--so Hospira gave up that idea. "[W]e've always said we don't support the use of any of our products for lethal injections," a Hospira spokesperson told Pharmalot.

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