CDCR/FlickrCondemned Housing, East Block at San Quentin State Prison.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s supply of a key lethal injection drug is lab-certified as sterile and sufficiently potent.
Prison officials sent off a share of their sodium thiopental for testing in January to confirm the drug was manufactured properly. The department purchased 521 grams of the anesthetic in October from an obscure pharmaceutical wholesaler in London.
With the reassuring results (report embedded at bottom), perhaps the lone remaining concern about California’s supply is whether it will fall within an expanding federal inquiry. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is investigating how officials in Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee imported sodium thiopental, the first of a three-drug cocktail that renders condemned inmates unconscious.
Federal agents have taken possession of imported lethal injection drugs from the three states, the Associated Press reported. Sodium thiopental is in extremely short supply in the United States, prompting some states to share their reserves, or to purchase the drug from overseas.
The latter scenario is becoming the new norm for prison systems that rely on that specific anesthetic. But anti-death penalty groups and condemned inmates have raised questions about whether the imported drug meets U.S. quality control standards.
If the drug does not work as intended, inmates would likely experience extreme pain, violating their Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment.
Food and Drug Administration records show Georgia secured its doses [PDF] from the same vendor as California: Dream Pharma, a one-man operation run from the back of a London driving school.
It remains unknown whether California used the same importers to move the drugs from port to prison.
E-mail correspondence between state and federal officials [PDF] show the corrections department sought the DEA's advice on how to legally import the anesthetic last year.
A DEA agent, whose name has been redacted, on Oct. 4 provided Scott Kernan, corrections department undersecretary for operations, with a spreadsheet listing all approved sodium thiopental importers.
A few days earlier, the corrections department tried unsuccessfully to get a waiver that would have allowed it to import the anesthetic itself. John McAuliffe, a corrections department contract employee, was rebuffed by a DEA official, who wrote that such approval would have to come from someone “above him.”
To which, Kernan replied: “When he responds please get a name and number of superior who can approve an exemption for this specific purpose. I’ll call or even get Matt or somebody in Gov’s office to call.”
The “Matt” referenced is likely Matt Cate, the state corrections secretary.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California obtained the records through Freedom of Information Requests to the federal agency. The organization also forced release of more than 1,000 pages of state records on the lethal injection drug by suing CDCR.
No matter how it arrived at San Quentin State Prison, analysis records released this week show the sodium thiopental meets quality standards. The lab report states that pharmacological potency of tested doses was 93.7 percent, with acceptably low levels of heavy metals and impurities.