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India firm halts sales of execution drug to U.S.

Friday, April 8, 2011

ATLANTA -- A pharmaceutical company in India that supplied a key lethal injection drug to at least one U.S. state and reached out to a half-dozen others announced Thursday it was no longer selling the drug to American prison officials, drying up yet another source of the drug amid a severe shortage.

Kayem Pharmaceutical was fast becoming a major supplier of sodium thiopental, a sedative in the three-drug lethal injection cocktail that most of the 34 death penalty states use. The sole American manufacturer stopped making the drug last year and since then at least seven states have obtained the scarce drug overseas; others got it from fellow states.

Mumbai-based Kayem said on its website it made the decision to "refrain ourselves in selling this drug where the purpose is purely for lethal injection and its misuse" because it cherished the "ethos of Hinduism."

Nebraska announced in January it had acquired 500 grams of the drug from Kayem, and a company salesman said he also sold the drug to South Dakota prison officials. A spokeswoman for the South Dakota attorney general said the state bought 500 grams for $5,000, but Sara Rabern wouldn't say what company the state purchased the drug from.

The salesman, Tony Atwater, said he and a colleague reached out to about eight states.

"We were seeing a lot of interest in sodium thiopental, but states are scared," said Atwater, who is planning on leaving the firm. "They want to wait until all the lawsuits are hashed out."

The Drug Enforcement Administration seized Georgia's entire supply of sodium thiopental in March amid questions in a condemned inmate's lawsuit about whether Georgia circumvented the law in obtaining the drug from an English company. And DEA agents last week also took the Kentucky's and Tennessee's supply, effectively preventing executions in the three states.

The sodium thiopental supply shortage began when Hospira Inc. of Lake Forest, Ill. stopped making sodium thiopental last year and grew worse in January when it announced it would not resume production. Another supplier, British firm Archimedes Pharma Limited, has said the firm does not directly export the drug to the U.S. and that it doesn't keep information on its product users.

An Associated Press review earlier this year found that Arizona, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Kentucky, Nebraska and Tennessee obtained sodium thiopental overseas.

South Dakota, which announced Wednesday it had purchased enough sodium thiopental to carry out the executions of its two death row inmates, did not immediately comment on how it obtained the drug.

As the shortage worsens, some states are switching to alternatives. Ohio and Oklahoma have used pentobarbital, a stronger sedative often used to euthanize animals, by itself to execute inmates.

Texas, the nation's busiest death row state, is swapping out sodium thiopental in favor of pentobarbital in its three-drug cocktail. Mississippi and Arizona are considering similar moves.

Officials in Nebraska, which bought the drug from the Indian firm for about $2,000, declined to comment on Kayem's decision. Corrections spokeswoman Dawn-Renee Smith said the state still has its sodium thiopental.

Atwater plans to start his own venture with another Kayem salesman and continue to sell sodium thiopental to the U.S. He said he has pitched the drug to corrections officials as a way to make inroads to sell other pharmaceuticals.

"I battled back and forth with it myself -- should I be selling this to states? Some days I say yes, some days I say no. Is it ethical?" he said. "If they're on death row, then they murdered someone. So did they deserve to enjoy another day of life? No, they absolutely don't."


Associated Press writers Timberly Ross in Omaha, Neb., and Chet Brokaw in Pierre, S.D., contributed to this report.


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