Mysteries of the death-drug scramble

The strange tale of how California prison officials pulled out all the stops to acquire a lethal injection chemical


The California prison system finally released some documents on its efforts to procure the chemicals it needs to execute prisoners, and the 1,000 pages show the desperate lengths state officials have gone to procure the death drugs.

At one point, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation looked at importing drugs from Pakistan. In October, prison officials sent agents on a secret midnight mission to Arizona to acquire sodium thiopental, one of the drugs used in executions, from that state's supply.

In the end, CDCR wound up buying an extraordinary quantity of the stuff from a supplier in London — potentially putting California in the disturbing position of serving as the death-drug dealer to the rest of the country.

The protocol for lethal injections in California, and 33 other states, calls for three drugs — sodium thiopental to put the condemned inmate in a coma; pancurium bromide to paralyze the muscles; and potassium chloride to stop the heart.

But sodium thiopental, also known as Sodium Pentothal, has been in short supply in this country, in part because the one company that currently makes it, Hospira, has production backlogs. There's not a whole lot of need for the drug in modern medicine — it's largely been replaced with other anesthetics — and Hospira has made it clear in repeated press statements that it doesn't want its product used in executions.

So when the last batch of the stuff in the state's hands expired in October, California had to put executions on hold while prison officials scrambled to find some more.



The whole process was cloaked in secrecy. Nobody at CDCR would tell us where they were looking for the sodium thiopental, who would be procuring it, or how the supply chain might work. That, of course, is crucial, in a grisly way: If the anesthetic didn't perform properly (that is, if the state got a bad batch from an unregulated supplier), a prisoner could go through unspeakable agony as the second batch of drugs made it impossible to breathe.

The Guardian filed a request in October under the California Public Records Act seeking details on the purchase attempts, but CDCR stonewalled. The American Civil Liberties Union, also seeking the documents, filed a lawsuit, and a judge ordered the release of a large volume of material.

Those documents, now available at, is heavily redacted, and much of the material we expected to see is missing. But the documents contain some remarkable revelations.

For starters, there's an internal timeline going back to 2007 showing that CDCR officials knew back then, while the drug protocol was being developed, that there would be problems. The Drug Enforcement Administration will only allow a doctor to order the class III controlled substances. And the federal receiver overseeing the prison system wouldn't allow any of the three doctors on staff at San Quentin State Prison to sign the order forms, although the documents didn't say why.

In January 2007, CDCR tried to recruit outside doctors to order the drugs — but physicians in California have traditionally declined to assist in executions. Indeed, the American Medical Association policy bars doctors from participating in capital punishment in any way, including "prescribing or administering tranquilizers."

It wasn't until May 2010 that CDCR was able to find doctors willing to order the deadly drugs; the names of those physicians are not in the documents.

The timeline shows that in June 2010, CDCR became aware that there was a shortage of sodium thiopental, but there was no public discussion of the situation. Plans to execute Albert Greenwood Brown, a convicted murderer set to die in September 2010, went forward.

But the courts weren't rushing the execution — and the last batch of sodium thiopental in CDCR's possession expired Oct. 1.