Report: Ohio Intended to Illegally Import Execution Drug

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Dennis McGuire
  • Dennis McGuire
The Buckeye State's recent history with capital punishment isn't great, to put the matter lightly. The state hasn't carried out an execution since January of 2014, when Dennis McGuire was put to death in what would become a 26-minute ordeal involving McGuire snorting and gasping after the cocktail was administered. That, among other headline-making executions of similar inhumane variety in states like Arizona, made national headlines.

The only FDA-approved manufacturer of the sodium thiopental, which had been a single-drug cocktail used by many states, ceased production back in 2011 (specifically to avoid it being used in executions) which led states to play pharmacist in a search for new cocktails with which to kill people (hopefully in fewer than 26 minutes). Ohio was a pioneer in this field, experimenting with cocktails whose effectiveness have never been proved or tested, like midazolam and hydromorphone, which was the combo used in McGuire's execution, or phenobarbital as a single-drug cocktail, which Ohio was using until international supplies dried up because companies didn't want to be furnishing execution drugs to America. There's much more sadness, but that about covers the most recent ghastliness of the search for drugs that won't take 26 minutes to publicly kill someone.

Which brings us and Ohio back to trusty old sodium thiopental. While there are various lawsuits and statehouse discussions and a court-isssued stay on executions here, Ohio has nevertheless been actively and illegally looking for trusty old sodium thiopental outside of the U.S. border, according to documents obtained by BuzzFeed.

In a June letter, the FDA wrote to Ohio, warning the state that importing the drugs would be illegal.

“Please note that there is no FDA approved application for sodium thiopental, and it is illegal to import an unapproved new drug into the United States,” wrote Domenic Veneziano, the director of FDA’s import operation.

The letter, which was sent to the head of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. A department spokesperson did not respond when asked if the state still intends to import the drug.

In similar letters to Nebraska and its Indian drug supplier, the FDA cited “media reports” as the source of its information that the state was attempting to import execution drugs. However, the letter to Ohio cited only “information received by the agency.” The FDA declined to specify how officials were tipped off.

The prison Ohio carries out executions in registered for a DEA license to import the drug last year for a “law enforcement purpose,” but until now it was unknown if the state actually intended to use the license.

Ohio, like many other death penalty states, shrouds its execution drug suppliers in secrecy. States argue the secrecy protects their suppliers from intimidation and embarrassment, while death row inmates and open government advocates argue it removes an important check on state power.

At this point, the identity of Ohio’s intended supplier is unknown. Nebraska paid more than $50,000 for hundreds of executions’ worth of sodium thiopental from an Indian dealer named Chris Harris. According to emails from Harris and the DEA, Harris sold to at least one other state as well.

BuzzFeed notes that it's unclear whether Ohio was that state. Followup questions by BuzzFeed to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections and various government officials, including John Kasich and Attorney General Mike DeWine, were not answered or were directed back to the ODRC.

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