Ohio switching to a new drug for lethal injections

Deborah Denno in The Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 25, 2011

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Published: Tuesday, January 25, 2011, 7:06 PM    
Updated: Wednesday, January 26, 2011, 7:34 AM

By Reginald Fields, The Plain Dealer 
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COLUMBUS, Ohio - A backlash from a pharmaceutical company has forced Ohio to change the drug it will use to lethally inject death row inmates.

Ohio will be the first state with a one-drug injection process using pentobarbital, a sedative used during heart surgery. But one death penalty expert said Ohio is turning to an unproven execution method that she likened to an experiment.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction announced Tuesday that it would switch to pentobarbital after the maker of the current drug, sodium thiopental, objected to its product being used for capital punishment.

The prison system will use sodium thiopental, a coma-inducing barbiturate, for the last time on Feb. 17 for the scheduled execution of Frank Spisak. Hospira Inc., the only U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental, recently announced that it would stop producing the drug.

"They ceased production of the drug and that drug is very hard to come by," said DRC spokesman Carlo LoParo. "The new drug will be manufactured in the U.S., and there is sufficient quantity."

Of the 39 states using lethal injection, nearly all use sodium thiopental but are also likely to have to find other drugs to carry out executions.

Hospira, in suburban Chicago, had already begun a slowdown in production of the drug, which caused a national shortage last year that threatened to postpone several executions here and in other states.

Ohio will use its remaining supply on Spisak, a self-proclaimed Nazi who killed three people at Cleveland State University in 1982.

LoParo said DRC officials will administer 5,000 mg -- about six times more than doctors use during surgical procedures -- to produce a humane death by first rendering the inmate comatose and then stopping the respiratory system.

"It will be impossible for a person to be revived," LoParo said.

Oklahoma currently uses pentobarbital as one of three drugs to carry out an execution. Fordham Law Professor Deborah W. Denno said that because Oklahoma uses three drugs, no one really knows how pentobarbital will work until Ohio becomes the first state to use it as a solo agent.

"It is pretty much going to be an experiment because they don't know what is going to happen," Denno said. "Oklahoma will say they have not had a problem, but they are also using these other two drugs with pentobarbital. This drug might act differently when you only use this drug alone."

Denno also questions where Ohio will purchase its supply of the drug. She said a Denmark drug maker that exports pentobarbital to the United States has already expressed concern the drug will be used for executions.

LoParo said Ohio does not reveal its drug suppliers for lethal injections. He also disputed Denno's claim that pentobarbital is used to euthanize animals, saying its suppliers sell only to hospitals.

"It may not be used in Ohio to euthanize animals but it is used to euthanize animals elsewhere," Denno said. "I think what they are trying to do is distinguish the execution of humans from the euthanasia of animals."

Ohio has been sued in recent years by inmates who have charged that the state's lethal injection procedures violate their rights against cruel and unusual punishment. The state has responded by altering its execution procedures, first changing its three-drug concoction, before using just the sodium thiopental.