Texas runs low on pentobarbital, state execution drug


The 20th annual Starvin' for Justice fast and vigil against the death penalty in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington on June 29, 2013.


Nicholas Kamm

Texas, the state with the country's highest execution rate, has left about one month's supply of pentobarbital, which means the life and scheduled death of its convicted inmates may be in question.

The state does not have a backup plan to replace the drug, a barbiturate that can be used to treat epilepsy — or in a three-drug cocktail to kill convicts on death row.

Several suppliers have refused sell their products if used for capital punishment. For example, the pharmaceutical company Lundbeck, in a statement on its website, says it restricts the sale and distribution of its product to prisons based on its view of international human rights. 

"Lundbeck is dedicated to improving the quality of life for people suffering from brain diseases. Therefore, it was very disturbing to us when we learned in 2011 that one of our products, Nembutal [pentobarbital], was used off-label by US prisons to carry out capital punishment," the statement says. 

Texas has executed 11 inmates this year — the most recent sentence was carried out just Wednesday — with seven more scheduled for 2013. According to the state's most recent disclosure, it probably has enough pentobarbital for about three more executions.

With this in mind, Jason Clark, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, told Reuters his state would be able to carry out its death sentences as planned, though he did not say whether executions could be delayed.

"We will be unable to use our current supply of pentobarbital after it expires," Clark said. "We are exploring all options at this time," and "alternate sources of pentobarbital are possible, or an alternate drug," he added.  

However, new methods and drugs used in state executions cannot be used without the legal consent of the courts. For example, Missouri intends to use the anesthetic propofol, but it must first be accepted by the state's supreme court, which has suspended the setting of new execution dates until the issue is cleared up. And California, currently in a legal battle that effectively amounts to a hold on executions, has a similar issue.  

Since 1976, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the death penalty, Texas has executed 503 prisoners.