Why the market won't supply lethal injection drugs to Texas

Pentobarbital sodium injection.

Texas is running out of the drug it uses in lethal injections. Other states also face shortages of drugs used in execution. But that demand for pentobarbital isn't yielding a new supply.

John Hurt, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, says this isn’t the first time Texas has gone looking for a new drug to execute condemned inmates.

“It happens all the time, probably two or three times in the last five years,” he says.

The state’s supply of the current drug -- pentobarbital -- has an expiration date at the end of September. And Texas can’t get anymore.

“That’s a business decision by the pharmaceutical companies,” Hurt says.

The decision to stop supplying drugs for lethal injections has states like Texas looking for alternatives. But so far, no one’s stepping up to provide them. It’s a tiny market -- not worth the risk for pharmaceutical companies concerned about their reputations, says Frank Lichtenberg, a health economist at the Columbia Business School.

If I am selling other drugs, or this drug, for therapeutic uses, it doesn’t send a very good message to the market and to customers that this drug is also being used for capital punishment,” he says.

Besides, it’s not easy to get into the business; drug makers operate under lots of regulations. Some states, including Georgia, have looked at getting pentobarbital from compounding pharmacies -- which mix custom medications.

David Ball, a spokesman for the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists, believes at least some of those pharmacies will provide the drugs if asked.

“It’s not something compounders view as any kind of business opportunity,” he says. “It’s merely serving the needs of the government.”

A need that’s not going away, as long as capital punishment is legal.

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