How drug expiration dates could end executions in two states

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Officials from Arizona's prison system told a federal judge Friday that they were "presently incapable of carrying out an execution." The same day, Arkansas officials acknowledged that they would be unable to legally execute inmates after this week.

The potential end to executions in these two states isn't due to political activism or court decisions. Instead, it could come from something much more mundane: expiration dates.

Both states rely on the drug midazolam for use in lethal injections. The drug, a sedative, is used in a "cocktail" with other drugs to incapacitate a death row inmate before they're killed. Midazolam has been steeped in controversy for years. The last time Arizona used it, during the 2014 execution of Joseph Wood, it took Wood two hours to die, and witnesses saw him gasping for air.


In a 5–4 decision last year, the Supreme Court allowed the drug to be used. But no FDA-approved manufacturers are currently selling it for use in executions.

Arizona's supply of the drug expired in May while a lawsuit over its use dragged on. And Arkansas' supply will expire before the end of this week, on June 30. Both states have been unable to find new supplies, and while laws in both allow for the use of other drugs in lethal injections, officials' efforts to get those drugs have also failed.

It's a dramatic turn of events for Arizona and Arkansas, which are both in the top 15 states by number of executions since 1976. But they're hardly alone. Many states have been increasingly stymied in their attempts to resupply lethal injection drugs. Pfizer, one of the largest drug companies in the world, said earlier this year that it would stop selling drugs to states for use in executions. The FDA confiscated 3,000 vials of another drug that Arizona, Texas, and Nebraska had tried to import from India, which violates federal law.

Ohio is out of drugs and searching for a new source, officials say. Texas has only enough of its drug, pentobarbital, to carry out eight more executions. Utah even passed a bill last year reinstating the firing squad as a legal method of execution due to a shortage of drugs.


Overall, executions are on the decline in the U.S., and the death penalty is also facing more challenges from politicians and the public as states scramble to find new drug sources. Also on Friday, members of the Democratic National Committee's platform drafting committee approved a statement in the party's platform calling the death penalty "a cruel and unusual form of punishment which has no place" in the U.S.

It was the first time in the history of the party that it wrote opposition to the death penalty into its platform.


Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.

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