msnbc.com
updated 11/30/2010 9:57:45 AM ET 2010-11-30T14:57:45

The United Kingdom placed strict export controls on a drug commonly used for executions in the United States following pressure from death penalty opponents who sought to make it more difficult for the anesthetic to be obtained.

"This move underlines this government's and my own personal moral opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances without impacting legitimate trade," Secretary of State for Business Vince Cable said Monday after issuing the order that thiopental must be licensed for export, meaning companies shipping the drug overseas will be required to prove it is intended for medical use, not execution.

U.K.'s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills issued the export controls after a recent lawsuit filed on behalf of Tennessee inmate Edmund Zagorski, whose execution was allegedly carried out using thiopental sodium from abroad.

The suit, filed by London-based rights group Repireve and London law firm Leigh Day & Co in U.K.'s High Court, sought to halt the drug's export from the U.K. Thiopental is also made in India and Italy.

Tennessee authorities would not disclose the exact source of the thiopental.

"Hopefully this will kick start a wider effort to limit the supply of the drug from other European countries," Jamie Beagent, an attorney for Zagorski, said to the Wall Street Journal.

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The U.K.'s decision compounds execution problems for the U.S. Earlier this year, Hospira Inc., the only American maker of thiopental, announced it had a shortage of the drug, and wouldn't have more until 2011.

As a result, states have been scrambling for alternative execution options . Oklahoma was granted a judge's approval to use pentobarbital — a drug used in animal euthanasia — for human executions last week, the Journal reported.

California has put off one execution in part because of the thiopental shortage, but said last week it ordered new batch that won't expire until 2014. Because Hospira's current supply expires in 2011, the batch is believed to have been secured overseas.

"We have no idea where the drugs [California is] getting were made, but we know they were not made by any legitimate manufacturer in the U.S.," Natasha Minsker, a death penalty specialist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, told the Journal.

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Like Tennessee, California authorities have refused to disclose the source of their thiopental.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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