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Arizona to resume executions using mix of painkiller and sedative


The Arizona Department of Corrections is going to resume executions by using a secret pharmacy to mix a drug combination that left an Ohio prisoner choking and snorting for 19 minutes as he died in January.

Dennis McGuire reportedly gasped as his stomach heaved and clenched after he was given a combination of Hydromorphone, a painkiller, and Midazolam, a sedative. It was the first time the drug combination had been used.

Attorney General spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said Arizona is going to use a higher concentration of the drugs than Ohio did.

The state is going to keep the compounding pharmacy that will mix the drugs confidential on the basis of public safety. Attorney General Tom Horne said in a press release that identifying the source of the drug has dried up the supply in other states because of the public outcry against the suppliers.

“The Arizona DOC carries out executions in a constitutional manner and in a way that is transparent to the public,” Horne said in the press release. “But transparency has its limits when used to undermine government agencies from carrying out their lawful duties.”

Compounding pharmacies are regulated by the states, not the Food and Drug Administration. They have been used mostly for mixing drugs for individuals – for example, someone who has an allergy to a non-active ingredient found in a mass-produced drug.

Arizona had effectively stopped executions because of a shortage of the drug Pentobarbital, and state officials have been watching how other states have addressed the issue. Arizona’s last execution came Oct. 23.

States have developed various policies to address the drug shortage, from experimenting with other drugs to using compounding pharmacies to mix up special batches of Pentobarbital, the drug that is in short supply and used in the last 11 Arizona executions.

Death penalty opponents have condemned the use of other drugs, comparing it to human experimentation because the effects at specific doses are still unknown.

Arizona can expect a lawsuit to challenge the new policy.

In October, the state tried to keep its source of Pentobarbital a secret, but Judge Roslyn Silver of U.S. District Court in Phoenix said condemned prisoners have a First Amendment right to know what the state is going to use to kill them. She ordered the state to turn over information on the drug.

In that case, assistant Attorney General John PressleyTodd made a case for confidentiality by pointing to a public backlash in Texas when that state used a compounding pharmacy to make a batch of Pentobarbital for executions and the name of the pharmacy became public.

The owner of the pharmacy pulled out of his agreement to mix the drugs, citing hate mail, constant inquiries from the press and being dragged into prisoner lawsuits. The same thing happened in Oklahoma.

Pentobarbital became scarce because its maker, Lundbeck, began requiring purchasers in 2011 to agree not to distribute the drug to U.S. prisons for executions. Lundbeck said in a statement at the time it opposed the use of its products in capital punishment.

Arizona executed two prisoners last year. Four death-row prisoners have exhausted their appeals and are now eligible for death warrants.

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