HUNTSVILLE, Texas – The nation's most active death penalty state is running out of its execution drug.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice said Thursday that its remaining supply of pentobarbital expires in September and that no alternatives have been found. It wasn't immediately clear whether two executions scheduled for next month would be delayed. The state has already executed 11 death-row inmates this year, and at least seven more have execution dates in coming months.
"We will be unable to use our current supply of pentobarbital after it expires," agency spokesman Jason Clark said. "We are exploring all options at this time."
Texas switched to the lethal, single-dose sedative last year after one of the drugs used in its three-drug execution process became difficult to obtain and the state's supply expired. Other death-penalty states have encountered similar problems after some drug suppliers barred the drugs' use for executions or have refused, under pressure from death-penalty opponents, to sell or manufacture drugs for use in executions.
No executions in Texas were delayed because of that shortfall.
"When Texas raises a flag that's it having a problem, obviously numerically it's significant around in the country because like they're doing half the executions in the country right now," Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-death penalty organization, said Thursday.
"The states really scramble to go all over to get drugs," he said. "Some went overseas, some got from each other. But these manufacturers, a number them are based in Europe, don't want to participate in our executions. So they've clamped down as much as they can," Dieter said.
Some death penalty states, most recently Georgia, have announced they're turning to compounding pharmacies, which make customized drugs that are not scrutinized by the Federal Drug Administration, to obtain a lethal drug for execution use.
Missouri wants to use propofol, the anesthetic blamed for pop star Michael Jackson's 2009 death -- even though the drug hasn't been used to execute prisoners in the U.S. Its potential for lethal injection is under scrutiny by the courts and its first use isn't likely anytime soon. The Missouri Supreme Court has declined to allow execution dates to be set in that state until the legal issues are resolved.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster recently suggested that if a suitable execution drug can't be found, the state should consider the gas chamber. State law still allows for execution by lethal gas, though Missouri no longer even has a gas chamber.
A return to the gas chamber or electric chair anywhere would be difficult, Dieter suggested.
"Those things just raise the spectacle level and I don't think it's where states want to go," he said.
Pentobarbital, which has been used alone or in concert with other drugs in all executions in the U.S. the past two years, was more readily available because it was commonly used as a sedative.
"But I guess restrictions have been put on its distribution," Dieter said. "It's uncertain where all of this goes because it's inherently a medical kind of procedure involving some health professionals who are largely focused on keeping people alive. It runs into contradictions with executions -- people strapped to a table. Executions aren't exactly what the medical model is."
Texas has by far executed more inmates than any other state in the U.S. since the Supreme Court allowed executions to resume. Since 1982, six years after the high court's order, Texas has executed 503 inmates. Virginia is a distant second at 110.
As of May 2012, Texas had 46 of the 2.5-gram vials of pentobarbital, presumably enough to execute as many as 23 prisoners since each execution requires a 5-gram dose. The execution Wednesday of an inmate convicted in two road-rage killings was the 20th lethal injection since that disclosure.