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U.S. company ends production of lethal drug

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The sole U.S. manufacturer of a key lethal injection drug said Friday it is ending production because of death-penalty opposition overseas - a move that could delay executions across the United States.

Over the past several months, a growing shortage of the drug, sodium thiopental, has forced some states to put executions on hold. And the problem is likely to get worse with the announcement from Hospira Inc. of Lake Forest, Ill.

Hospira is switching manufacturing from its North Carolina plant to a more modern factory in Liscate, Italy. But authorities in Italy, which does not have capital punishment and opposes the death penalty, demanded a guarantee the drug would not be used to put inmates to death - an assurance the company said it was not willing to give.

"We cannot take the risk that we will be held liable by the Italian authorities if the product is diverted for use in capital punishment," Hospira spokesman Dan Rosenberg said. Italian Health Ministry officials were not immediately available for comment.

All but one of the 35 states that employ lethal injection use sodium thiopental. In nearly every case, they use it in a three-drug combination that sedates and paralyzes the inmate and stops the heart.

There are similar sedatives on the market, but substituting one drug for another would require new laws or lengthy administrative processes in some states, and could also lead to lawsuits from death row.

Similarly, switching to another manufacturer could invite lawsuits from inmates demanding proof that the drug will not cause pain in violation of their constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Hospira is the only sodium thiopental maker approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Because of what Hospira described as problems with its raw-material suppliers, sodium thiopental is already scarce in the United States.

In Texas, the nation's busiest death penalty state, the Department of Criminal Justice said Friday it is exploring the use of another anesthetic. The state has four executions scheduled between now and July but has enough sodium thiopental to carry out only two February executions, spokesman Jason Clark said.- AP

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