By David Ingram
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Fifteen states asked the U.S. Justice Department on Monday for help in obtaining an anesthesia drug they use in executions but that a federal judge said in March was illegally imported.
The dispute is playing out in a lawsuit over whether the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has the authority to allow shipments of the sedative sodium thiopental into the country, even though the drug is not approved for U.S. use.
The group of 15 state attorneys general said in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that if the March decision barring the drug stands, they will be forced to seek alternative means for lethal injection.
The states need the drug "to enforce their laws through capital punishment," the attorneys general said. Twelve of the signers are Republicans and three are Democrats.
The Justice Department has until May 29 to file an appeal in the case. A spokesman on Monday declined to comment.
Prison inmates filed a challenge to the shipments of the drug in 2011, renewing a fight that has wound through U.S. courts for decades.
"It may complicate the lives of state correctional officials, but we certainly don't think they should be using unlawful, unapproved drugs in their execution protocols," the inmates' lawyer Bradford Berenson said on Monday.
The only sources of sodium thiopental are outside the United States after Hospira Inc, the sole U.S. producer, stopped making it last year.
After the ruling by U.S. District Judge Richard Leon in Washington, the FDA in April asked states with foreign-made sodium thiopental to turn the drug over.
Oklahoma, where Attorney General Scott Pruitt signed on to Monday's letter, has been using another sedative, pentobarbital, but said this month that it has one dose remaining. A return to using sodium thiopental has been one option under discussion.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)