FDA Won't Release Execution Drugs Bound for Texas, Arizona

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on April 25, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Back in 2015, the Food and Drug Administration intercepted over 1,000 vials of sodium thiopental bound from India to law enforcement officials in Texas and Arizona. The shipments were an attempt to skirt a 2012 ban on the drug and were intended to be used for lethal injections in death penalty cases.

Last week, the FDA informed the two states that, after much legal back-and-forth, it would not be releasing the drugs. Not only that, but that states have just 90 days to export or destroy their caches of sodium thiopental. Here's a look at why:

Bad Is Bad

Buzzfeed obtained a letter from the FDA explaining the rationale for its decision, and it goes back to a 2012 U.S. District Court order that bans the FDA from "permitting the entry of, or releasing any future shipments of foreign manufactured thiopental that appears to be misbranded" or appears to be an unapproved new drug.

The FDA said its decision was not aimed at ending lethal injection or an "intention to interfere with lawfully conducted capital punishment carried out by lethal injection." The agency told the states they could import properly labeled and FDA-approved thiopental, but, as Buzzfeed noted, the last FDA-approved thiopental supplier stopped manufacturing the drug years ago, specifically because it was being used to execute people. Instead, the intercepted vials of powerful anesthetic all came from one man in India, who, as Buzzfeed describes, "made more than $100,000 selling execution drugs to states that have never been able to use his products."

I Want a New Drug

Without access to what was once the first of three drugs that comprised the vast majority of lethal injection cocktails, states have been turning to replacements and not with good results. Arizona may have been trying to return to sodium thiopental after the use of a replacement, midazolam, produced a botched execution that lasted two-hours and during which Joseph Wood struggled, gasped for air, and moaned in pain.

Midazolam was also involved in a botched execution in Oklahoma that left Clayton Lockett twitching, mumbling, and attempting to rise before succumbing to a heart attack. And expiring midazolam is apparently what forced Arkansas to try and execute eight people in just ten days. (It only succeeded in being the first state to execute two inmates in the same night since Texas did it in 2000. Oklahoma tried in 2014, but called off the second execution after things went awry with Lockett.)

It's not clear where Arizona and Texas will turn now that they will not have access to the intercepted sodium thiopental.

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