New Lethal Injection Drug Raises Concerns A dwindling supply of sodium thiopental has forced states to find an alternative drug for lethal injections. Corrections officials in Oklahoma have started using pentobarbital, and Ohio says it will soon follow suit. But death penalty opponents have raised questions, since the drug hasn't been tested for this use.
NPR logo

New Lethal Injection Drug Raises Concerns

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
New Lethal Injection Drug Raises Concerns

New Lethal Injection Drug Raises Concerns

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


One of three drugs used for lethal injections in most of the states that have the death penalty is just not available. Thats delayed some executions. In addition to that, the only U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental recently announced that it wouldnt make the drug anymore. And that's forced states to search for a new drug. And this week, Ohio officials say they've found one.

But as NPR's Kathy Lohr reports, the drug has not been tested, and that raises new legal issues.

KATHY LOHR: Thirty-five states have the death penalty, and corrections officials have been looking for options as the supply of sodium thiopental dwindled.

Ohio officials now say they'll use an alternative anesthetic, pentobarbital, which Oklahoma recently started using in its executions.

Mr. CARLO LOPARO (Ohio Prison Spokesman): The supply is readily available; it is manufactured in the United States - so all of those factors played into our decision to move to that drug.

LOHR: Ohio prison spokesman Carlo LoParo says the type of pentobarbital his state has chosen is used in some heart surgeries. Another version of the drug is used by veterinarians to euthanize animals. Pentobarbital is one of three drugs approved for use in Oklahoma executions. But LoParo says Ohio will use a large dose of this one drug.

Mr. LOPARO: Ohio's method of a single-drug protocol has been approved. And it's been about a year since that approval has occurred. We're simply switching the drug.

LOHR: LoParo says the new drug is widely available, although he would not release the name of Ohio's supplier, saying only that the company also supplies hospitals.

Mr. RICHARD DIETER (Executive Director, Death Penalty Information Center): Well, Ohio may be the direction that other states follow.

LOHR: Richard Dieter is with the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, a group opposed to the death penalty. Ohio is one of two states that use only a single drug in their executions. But Dieter says it's not clear whether the new drug, pentobarbital, will do what it's supposed to do. Dieter says the issue here, the effectiveness of the anesthesia, is not yet known.

Mr. DIETER: So a new drug, you know, may have the same purpose, but it doesn't mean it has the same effect on human beings. And there's no way to experiment on executions except by doing them. So there's going to be challenges.

LOHR: Hospira, based in Illinois, announced last week that it would no longer produce sodium thiopental. But there's been a shortage of the drug for about a year, because the company was having difficulty getting the raw materials to make it. That forced at least four states to go out of the country to try to get it.

But some groups are wary of the imported drugs, and have filed lawsuits to force states to reveal where and how they got their supply. Natasha Minsker is with the ACLU of Northern California.

Ms. NATASHA MINSKER (Death Penalty Policy Director, ACLU): What are these execution drugs? Are they what they say they are? Will they work properly?

LOHR: Minsker says California officials were so desperate to get a supply that they contacted dozens of hospitals and other states to see if any would share. She says there's too much uncertainly about the quality of the supply that has turned up.

Ms. MINSKER: And this drug, in particular, is critical to whether or not the execution is being done in a proper manner, whether the execution is actually constitutional. So there's very real questions about whether these drugs can be used and should be used.

LOHR: An expert on lethal injection, Fordham Law School professor Deborah Denno says the issue is far from settled. She says legal battles will continue to get prison officials to reveal their sources and drug expiration dates.

Professor DEBORAH DENNO (Fordham University School of Law): I think this recent litigation shows that attorneys are going to pursue these kinds of issues to the bitter end. I see this as being a huge problem for states. It's going to delay executions, and there's no ready resolution for what states are going to do. What are they going to do?

LOHR: Most aren't telling. But in Ohio, officials say they still have enough of the old drug to carry out an execution set for next month. And they say theyll begin using the new drug, pentobarbital, in March.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.