The death drug dealers

DEA launches criminal probe into states that illegally imported execution drug

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tredmond@sfbg.com

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration is conducting a multistate criminal investigation into the actions that prison systems have taken to obtain a death drug no longer produced in the United States, documents obtained by the Guardian indicate.

The documents don't reveal the specific targets of the investigation, but federal agents have seized drug shipments in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Tennessee and are apparently also looking into drug procurement policies in California, Arkansas, Alaska, and Arizona.

The states have been scrambling to obtain sodium thiopental, a drug used in executions, after the lone American manufacturer, Hospira Corp., stopped producing it last year.

Georgia and Arizona both received shipments of the drug from Dream Pharma, a British wholesaler that, according to the Associated Press, "shares a building with a driving school in a gritty London neighborhood."

In October 2010, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sent agents on a secret mission to get some of Arizona's supply. The agents drove under cover of night to the Arizona state prison in Florence, where at midnight the warden handed them 12 grams of thiopental, enough for an execution.

The state later ordered 521 grams — far more than the state could possibly use in the next few years — from Archimedes Pharma, also a British supplier.

Several other states, including Georgia, obtained the drugs from a different British supplier, Link Pharmaceuticals. According to the Associated Press, Nebraska's supply was imported from India.

Most of the states imported the drugs without the proper DEA paperwork, a federal crime, the documents show.

Sodium thiopental is part of the three-drug mix used for lethal injections in most states that allow capital punishment. It renders the subject unconscious before the other drugs stop the heart and lungs from operating.

If the drug isn't effective — that is, if it's an improper formulation or an off-market product that doesn't meet U.S. standards — the condemned inmate could suffer horrible pain, something the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear is not legally tolerable.

The drug isn't often used in hospitals; it has been replaced by other drugs. And California had to put all of its executions on hold last fall when the state's last batch expired.

The documents are the latest released as the result of a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Northern California and the Guardian seeking access to all records related to the import of the death drug. Last week the DEA released 71 pages of documents, but withheld 160 pages, justifying the withholding by saying that some of the records are part of an ongoing criminal investigation.

A May 16 letter from Katherine Myrick, the DEA's chief Freedom of Information Officer, states that there are "two active investigations" and that release of the records could "reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings." The documents reveal how desperately state prison authorities were trying to find a way to procure the drug — and how concerned the DEA was about importing a controlled substance by agencies that had no medical or research functions.

Among other things, they show that the Obama administration was taking an active role in the process: "The White House is involved and is trying to sort things out," a Nov. 11, 2010 memo from the Office of Diversion Control states.

Another Nov. 11 memo notes that "states have been importing the lethal drug regimen from England ... the U.K. has written the State Department (and the FDA?) asking the U.S. to end the importation of the drug, which is being used in lethal injections."