The Federal District Court in Washington D.C. today ruled that execution drugs obtained by U.S. prisons from foreign suppliers are illegal and will have to be returned to the Food and Drug Administration.
A number of states purchased sodium thiopental–an anesthetic used in lethal injections–from a company in the United Kingdom amidst a U.S. shortage of the drug in 2010. California is among those states, having bought 514.5 grams, in theory, enough for 171 executions.
In February last year, a group of death row inmates in Arizona filed suit in federal court to stop the use of the foreign-made drug in executions nationwide. The major issue for the inmates is whether the drugs, which had not been approved by the FDA, would work properly if used in an execution. Sodium thiopental is traditionally the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection cocktail. An anesthetic, the drug is supposed to prevent the condemned inmate from feeling pain while dying. A second drug paralyzes the inmate, and a third stops his or her heart. A lethal dose of sodium thiopental is also sometimes used as the sole drug in an execution.
Today, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon took the inmates’ side, admonishing the FDA for allowing states to import unapproved drugs.
Two of the Arizona inmates involved in the suit have already been executed.
Federal law says that a drug may not be imported to the United States unless it’s listed with the FDA. “The FDA’s actions are clearly inconsistent with its own regulations,” Leon wrote. “The FDA appears to be simply wrapping itself in the flag of law enforcement discretion to justify its authority and masquerade an otherwise seemingly callous indifference to the health consequences of those imminently facing the executioner’s needle. How utterly disappointing!”
Leon went on to order the FDA to require states with sodium thiopental obtained from foreign sources to return the drug to the agency.
A spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation today said the department’s legal team is reviewing the ruling. Executions are on hold in the state, as several challenges to the state’s lethal injection procedure work through federal and state courts. Meanwhile, a proposed ballot initiative that would replace capital punishment with life in prison will likely go before voters in November.
States have continued to look to alternative drugs and foreign sources of sodium thiopental since Hospira, the sole FDA-approved manufacturer of sodium thiopental stopped making the drug in 2011, citing the company’s opposition to the drug’s use in executions.