Why Texas Is Running Out of Its Execution Drug

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Texas is known for its commitment to the death penalty -- more than 500 people have been executed there since 1982.

But it's running out of pentobarbital, the drug that it uses for lethal injections, and its supply will expire in September. The state is looking at other options, according to a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Pentobarbital is a barbiturate, which means it depresses the central nervous system. It's also used to anesthetize or euthanize animals, and in assisted suicide.

Several states started purchasing pentobarbital for executions in 2011, when a previously available drug went off the market.

But the makers of the drug, Lundbeck, weren't happy with it being used in executions, saying in a 2011 statement that the company "adamantly opposes the distressing misuse of our product in capital punishment."

They restricted the distribution of the drug, clarifying that it shouldn't be used in executions. But that didn't prevent prisons from using already purchased supplies.

It took a few years for the existing stock of pentobarbital in Texas to go out of circulation or expire. Now that it's happening, the state will be back on the hunt for more doses of pentobarbital, or for a different drug altogether.

There are drugs out there that Texas could use, according to Jen Moreno, a staff attorney at the Death Penalty Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law, a group that represents inmates on death row.

States have made poor choices around such drugs in recent past, though, she said. "It's not like these are really reasoned, researched decisions that the departments are making."

Arkansas, for example, announced earlier this year that it would use phenobarbital for lethal injections. The drug had never been used in an execution before, though, and the state later reversed its decision. "There were serious questions about whether or not it would actually cause death," she said.

Whatever drug Texas chooses, its makers will need to be comfortable with it being used to kill people, or else we could see a repeat of the scenario they're facing now.

Another factor to consider: Executions aren't exactly a burgeoning business, even in states like Texas. So when a company like Lundbeck prohibits authorities from using it in lethal injections, they aren't risking much economically, according to Moreno.

"It's such a small market if you could even call it a market," she said. "So I can't imagine they were losing a lot of business by cutting off such a narrow supply."


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