COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio has explored overseas options in its search for lethal injection drugs no longer available in the U.S. despite a court ruling that banned such purchases, records show.
The prison where Ohio carries out executions successfully applied for an import license from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration late last year in its search for lethal injection drugs, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press through an open records request. The license expires at the end of February next year.
"Law enforcement purpose," Richard Theodore, prisons agency policy adviser, said on a DEA questionnaire in November, prompted for the reason for applying.
The state declined to comment directly on the license, saying only it was still looking for lethal drugs.
"Ohio continues to seek the drugs necessary to carry out court ordered executions. This process has included pursuing multiple options," JoEllen Smith, a spokeswoman for the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said in an email.
In May, Nebraska's governor confirmed the state had obtained sodium thiopental from India. But two weeks later, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said the state cannot legally import a drug needed to carry out lethal injection.
Two years ago, in a case brought by death row inmates in Tennessee, Arizona and California, a federal appeals court ruled the FDA was wrong to allow sodium thiopental to be imported for use in executions.
Asked about Ohio's license, the FDA says it's seen no evidence besides news reports that sodium thiopental has been imported into the U.S. recently by state prison systems.
"With very limited exceptions, which do not apply here, it is unlawful to import this drug and FDA would refuse its admission into the United States," spokesman Jeff Ventura said in an email.
While the DEA can approve an entity's request for an import license, a separate process starts when the entity actually tries to bring the drug in, said Patrick Rodenbush, a Justice Department spokesman. Smith, of the prisons agency, declined to comment on the FDA ban.
In Ohio, the drugs are needed to restart executions in the state, which hasn't put an inmate to death since January 2014. As in many states, Ohio's traditional supply of injection drugs dried up as companies began putting them off-limits for executions after decades of more or less unrestricted use in capital punishment.
No executions are scheduled in Ohio this year. The state ditched its previous two-drug combo following a troubling 2014 execution that lasted 26 minutes and left the inmate gasping and snorting.
Executions are scheduled to resume in early 2016, with 21 execution dates set over the next four years.
Ohio's current policy calls for single doses of either sodium thiopental or pentobarbital, both powerful sedatives. In its DEA application, the prisons agency said it wants to import both ready-to-use supplies of sodium thiopental as well as bulk supplies, meaning it might try to have the drug compounded into a usable form.
Compounded drugs are small, specially mixed batches of drugs that are not subject to the same federal scrutiny as regular doses of the drugs.
Ohio updated its execution rules this week to require the testing of compounded drugs before their use.
It's unclear from where Ohio hopes to obtain drugs. Other states, including Nebraska, have turned to a manufacturer in India, according to documents obtained from the Nebraska prisons department by the American Civil Liberties Union.
"I presently have a batch being manufactured for 2 states that have placed an order" for sodium thiopental, Chris Harris, the CEO of West Bengal, India-based Harris Pharma, told the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services in an April 15 email. Harris was checking to see if Nebraska wanted to place an order as well. He did not return an email seeking comment.
Smith said the Ohio prisons agency has not communicated with Harris Pharma.
In Nebraska, the issue is temporarily moot: On May 28, Nebraska lawmakers abolished the death penalty over the governor's objections. Death penalty supporters are looking at ways to reinstate the law.