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War on execution drugs

Science | Death penalty opponents effectively blacklist sodium thiopental

Issue: "After the revolution," Feb. 26, 2011

A national shortage of sodium thiopental, a drug widely used for lethal injections, has sent some states scrambling for alternatives and given inspiration to opponents of the death penalty. The only FDA-approved maker of sodium thiopental in the United States, Hospira Inc. in Lake Forest, Ill., announced in January it would quit selling the drug after a plan to manufacture it in Italy was challenged by Italian authorities, who demanded assurances that the drug wouldn't be used for executions.

The American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) said in a statement that its members were "extremely troubled" by the shortage, since sodium thiopental, a longtime surgical anesthetic, is used in certain cases to avoid complications that may accompany newer anesthetics.

Now state officials, many of whom have run out of the drug, must find other suppliers or change their lethal injection protocol. Two have already taken the latter option: For three recent executions, Oklahoma substituted pentobarbital, another anesthetic, for thiopental in its standard three-drug lethal injection procedure. Ohio has abandoned the three-drug combination in favor of a large dose of pentobarbital exclusively. Its first pentobarbital execution is scheduled for March, but as a novel procedure, the method could face a legal challenge from inmates arguing it constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment."

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An underlying factor in the shortage is that few want to be associated with execution: Both the ASA and Hospira formally oppose the use of thiopental in executions, and Lundbeck Inc. in Deerfield, Ill.-the maker of Ohio's pentobarbital formula-has written to the Ohio corrections department protesting the use of its product.

Tomb raiders

As pro- and anti-government demonstrations in Egypt turned violent in late January, looters took advantage of the chaos to target museums and historical sites. Nine looters broke through the skylight of the 109-year-old Egyptian Museum in Cairo, where the largest collection of Pharaonic artifacts in the world is housed, including the mummy of Ramses the Great and treasures from Tutankhamen's tomb. The criminals broke two mummies and damaged about 70 artifacts in an apparent search for gold, but antiquities chief Zahi Hawass said nothing valuable was stolen and the damaged items could be restored.

Elsewhere in Egypt there were conflicting reports of looters raiding tombs and damaging stone reliefs, but Hawass said any damage was minimal, and many sites were being protected by either soldiers or citizens. Though gunmen stole hundreds of ancient objects from a storage facility at the Qantara Museum, near the Suez Canal, someone returned many of the items within a few days.

Whatever their view of President Hosni Mubarak's government, Egyptians in general have a high regard for their national treasures. After the Cairo museum break-in, citizens linked arms to form a chain in front of the building. On a Facebook web page that sprang up to provide a hub for Egyptian looting reports from the field, a person listing herself as a Cairo resident said her neighbors had organized themselves to lock down the neighborhood each night, guarding homes and a nearby museum.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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