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White House watched as state scrambled for lethal drug

CDCR/FlickrLethal injection Room 3; San Quentin State Prison

The highest levels of the United States government were initially unsure how to respond last year when California and other states began a worldwide scramble for a scarce lethal injection drug, e-mails between federal officials show.

Ten states went abroad to purchase sodium thiopental, an anesthetic and part of the three-drug cocktail frequently used for executions, Drug Enforcement Administration records show. California was one of eight that made their transaction with Dream Pharma Ltd., a one-man London drug wholesaler operating from the back of a driving school.

In November, as states filed paperwork to import the anesthetic, e-mails between officials at the DEA, the Food and Drug Administration, and Customs and Border Protection document the federal agencies fretted [PDF] over how to respond.

“The White House is involved and trying to sort things out,” wrote a DEA official to unknown recipients in a Nov. 11 e-mail.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California obtained the records last week through a Freedom of Information Act request. The organization has filed numerous records requests with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and various federal agencies.

Records released to the ACLU have served as the primary source of information about states’ frantic international search for sodium thiopental as domestic supplies of the drug expired or ran out.

Last week, the DEA released 90 pages of internal correspondence to the ACLU. Fifteen of those pages were completely redacted, along with the names of a majority of officials sending and receiving notes.

What remains of the exchanges casts the federal government as worried about the drugs states were brining home for executions.

Another Nov. 11 note, sent to several Obama Administration officials, hits the high points:

An issue has been brewing involving the importation of drugs used for lethal injections in an execution in Arizona. Because of a U.S. shortage of one of the drugs used in lethal injections, Thiopental Sodium, in the last year, states have been importing the lethal drug regimen from England. FDA had signed off on the importation of this drug which led to recent litigation on the issue of whether this drug was safe/brought into the country lawfully.

The UK has written to the State Department (and the FDA?) asking the U.S. to end the importation of this drug which is being used in lethal injections. Several decision points need to be made quite quickly. There are more importations pending at Customs until some decisions are made.

California’s lethal injection drug search ran from August to October – with calls to hospitals, other states and, at one point, someone in Pakistan. The state corrections department received 12 grams of the anesthetic from Arizona. The department later purchased another 521 grams from Dream Pharma directly.

In recent months, the DEA seized supplies of imported sodium thiopental from Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee over questions about how the drugs were imported.

The federal action in those states prompted a reporter at The Arizona Republic to ask in March if Arizona’s supply (some of which ended up in California) was under investigation [PDF].

“Nothing in the works,” one DEA official replied to another.


Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report


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