European Union restricts sale of execution drugs

The European Union said Tuesday it would place new restrictions on the sale of lethal injection drugs to countries that have yet to abolish capital punishment in a move that could worsen a supply shortage that has already delayed some U.S. executions.

The European Commission said Tuesday it would strengthen export controls on the sale of sodium thiopental, a sedative used as part of a lethal injection combination, as well as other drugs that could be used for executions. The commission said it wanted to "prevent their use for capital punishment, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

Opponents of capital punishment, who have long pressed European authorities to adopt the restrictions, cheered the decision.

It's unknown how it will impact U.S. death penalty states. Many states, including Ohio, Texas and Georgia, have switched to an alternative sedative called pentobarbital in hopes of securing a greater supply, and some have sought other overseas suppliers or received the drug from other states.

Tuesday's decision, which restricts the exports of "short and medium acting" anesthetics such as pentobarbital and sodium thiopental, is the latest move that targets the dwindling supply of lethal injection drugs.

In April, British officials said they would block the export of three lethal injection drugs to the U.S. That same month, an Indian pharmaceutical company that supplied sodium thiopental to Nebraska said it would no longer sell the drug to American prison officials.

In July, Lundbeck Inc., the Danish manufacturer of pentobarbital, said it would try to prevent its drug from being used in executions by requiring distributors to sign an agreement that they won't sell it for that purpose.

To cope with the scarce supply, many state prison officials have sought to stockpile lethal injection drugs over the past year. But the EU move could make it harder for them to replenish their supplies or replace expiring drugs. It could also force some state officials to consider finding another alternative, a complicated process that could lead to a fresh round of legal challenges.

Death penalty opponents used the announcement to press for broader restrictions that would prevent any European drugs from being used in U.S. executions. Clare Algar, the executive director of the London-based human rights group Reprieve, called it a "positive first step" in the effort.

"This should also make it clear to European firms, wherever they operate, that to continue supplying drugs for use in executions will be a clear breach of the spirit of the law," Algar said. "Any pharmaceutical company wishing to preserve an ethical reputation must take steps to ensure their drugs are not used to kill prisoners."

The execution drug shortage began last year and worsened in early 2011 when the sole U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental, once a lethal injection mainstay, announced it would not resume production of the drug. That forced corrections officials to delay many executions, and about two-thirds of the nation's 34 death penalty states switched to pentobarbital or considered making the move.

It's unlikely that the new restrictions will choke off supply. Several death penalty states have reported purchasing enough drugs to keep scheduling executions, and it's difficult for regulators to guarantee that vendors won't still try to sell the chemicals to state prisons through backchannels.

The shortage has had a pronounced impact on the nation's death penalty policy. The Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-capital punishment group, reported last week that a sustained drop in executions was partly linked to the execution supply shortage. It said the 43 executions that were carried out in 2011 were roughly half as many as in 2000.

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