Judge Blocks Importation of Execution Drug

Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon ruled in favor of death row inmates in Tennessee, Arizona, and California who fought to keep sodium thiopental, an anesthetic that has long been used as part of the three-drug cocktail in lethal injections, from entering the country.

Last year the U.S. manufacturer of the drug announced that they would no longer produce it. While some states switched to pentobarbital, other states have still been trying to obtain sodium thiopental from overseas manufacturers. Judge Leon agreed with the plaintiffs in this case, insisting that the Food and Drug Administration is breaking the law by allowing the importation of this unapproved drug. Though the FDA has declined to comment on the ruling, the Obama administration had argued that it had discretion to allow unapproved drugs into the U.S. and contended that the death row inmates lacked standing.

Leon, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, went even further than blocking the FDA from allowing the drug into the country and scolding them for “stubbornly clinging to every last ounce of [their] discretionary authority.” He also ordered them to immediately notify state correctional departments who have foreign-manufactured sodium thiopental and inform them that it is illegal to use it and that they must return the drug to the FDA.

Brad Berenson, a lawyer for the death row inmates, said that “it was especially gratifying that the court recognized that even the most despised members of our society are entitled to the protections Congress gave to all Americans in the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act.”

Judge Leon wrote “Here, the threatened injury–that unapproved foreign thiopental will fail to anesthetize plaintiffs properly during execution, causing conscious suffocation, pain, and cardiac arrest– is, to say the least, severe. Indeed, few in our society are more vulnerable than a death row inmate facing lethal injection.”

(photo credit: darrenjsylvester)

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