Anesthesiologists Raise Concerns About New Drug for Lethal Injections

A nationwide shortage of sodium thiopental, a key drug used in executions around the country, has forced states to consider alternative drugs for their lethal injections. Tennessee, where 86 inmates are facing execution and sodium thiopental is in short supply, is considering using pentobarbital instead. Oklahoma has already executed three inmates using the new drug as part of a 3-drug protocol. The use of pentobarbital, however, has drawn concerns from some anesthesiologists who said the drug has not been used to put patients to sleep and has not been tested for executions. Dr. David Varlotta, who is on the board of directors of the American Society of Anesthesiologists, noted that there are significant differences between the two drugs, and said pentobarbital “is not used in a clinical setting for clinical anesthesia.” Dr. David Waisel, an anesthesiologist and Harvard Medical School professor, said, “Sodium thiopental has been used millions of times, for 90% of operations, for 30 years. Pentobarbital has almost never been used for induction of anesthesia. If you look at the literature, there’s one report from the ’40s, maybe 2. We’re experimenting, and we’re taking a huge risk here just for the big desire to make sure we’re killing people.”

(B. Haas, “Tennessee has few options for execution drugs,” The Tennessean, February 6, 2011). See DPIC’s Lethal Injection page.