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Ohio switching drug used in lethal injections

Ohio says it's switching its lethal injection drug from a scarce anesthetic to one commonly used in surgery as a shortage of the drug normally used for executions has worsened.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The state is switching its lethal injection drug from a scarce anesthetic to one commonly used in surgery as a shortage of the drug normally used for executions has worsened, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction announced Tuesday.

Beginning in March, the state execution team will use a single, powerful dose of pentobarbital, a drug sometimes used to induce surgical comas. The drug replaces sodium thiopental, which was already scarce when its only U.S. manufacturer announced last week it would no longer produce it.

Ohio is following the lead of Oklahoma, which switched to pentobarbital last year and has since used it three times. However, Ohio, which uses only a single dose of anesthetic to execute inmates, would become the first state to use pentobarbital alone, without two additional drugs that paralyze inmates and stop their hearts.

Ohio prison officials say the version of pentobarbital the state is adopting is a different type of the drug than one used by veterinarians to euthanize pets.

The prisons department said it will use its remaining supply of sodium thiopental for the scheduled execution Feb. 17 of Frank Spisak, who killed three people at Cleveland State University in 1982.

The first use of pentobarbital is planned for March's scheduled execution of Johnnie Baston of Lucas County, condemned to die for shooting the owner of a Toledo store in the back of the head during a 1994 robbery.

Baston's public defender, Rob Lowe, said he was just learning of the change and could not yet comment.

The switch was not unexpected. Ohio has said for weeks that while it had enough sodium thiopental for the Spisak execution, it would not comment about its supply beyond that.

The state nearly ran out of the drug last spring and almost had to postpone an execution before obtaining some at the last moment.

Ohio has no more executions currently scheduled, but prosecutors have asked the Ohio Supreme Court to set additional dates for 14 men whose appeals are concluded.

Attorneys representing condemned inmates are waiting to learn more about the switch. Defense lawyer David Stebbins said a chief concern is that, unlike Oklahoma, Ohio will use the drug by itself.

"We just don't have any information on that, and I'm not sure anybody does since it's never been used that way," Stebbins said Tuesday.

States across the country have scrambled to find supplies of sodium thiopental after Hospira Inc., of Lake Forest, Ill., the drug's lone U.S. manufacturer, stopped producing it more than a year ago.

Hospira, which produced it for medical purposes and not for executions, announced Friday it would not resume production after authorities in Italy refused to allow its production if the company couldn't guarantee it would not be used for capital punishment.

Hospira said its plant in Italy was the only viable facility where it could be manufactured.

Arizona, Arkansas, California and Tennessee are among states that found a supply of sodium thiopental in England, but that source dried up after the British government banned the drug's export for use in executions.

Earlier this month, Nebraska announced it had obtained 500 grams from a company in India.