COLUMBUS, Ohio — The federal government told state attorneys general that it has run out of a key execution drug and is exploring alternatives, dashing states' hopes of obtaining a federal supply of the drug.
In January, states wrote U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asking for help obtaining sodium thiopental. The anesthetic is used by virtually all death penalty states, but supplies ran short when its U.S. manufacturer stopped production.
"At the present time, the federal government does not have any reserves of sodium thiopental for lethal injections and is therefore facing the same dilemma as many states," Holder said in a March 4 letter sent to the National Association of Attorneys General.
Holder said the lack of an available supply of sodium thiopental "is a serious concern."
The Justice Department had no comment, spokeswoman Alisa Finelli said. The attorneys general also declined to comment, and a Bureau of Prisons spokesman said the agency did not have an immediate response.
Holder said federal officials, including the Bureau of Prisons' general counsel, were researching alternatives, including "any necessary changes to current federal death penalty procedures."
The states that signed the January letter asking Holder for help are Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
The immediate impact of the federal shortage is minimal. A lawsuit challenging the federal government's injection procedures is pending, and the U.S. government has not executed anyone since 2003.
Some states, including Arizona, California, Georgia and Tennessee, have obtained supplies of sodium thiopental from England, though the British government has since banned its export for use in executions.
In February, death row inmates in Arizona, California and Tennessee sued the Food and Drug Administration to block imports of the drug. The lawsuit claims the FDA has knowingly allowed state corrections officials to import sodium thiopental that has not been approved by the agency.
Oklahoma and Ohio have switched to pentobarbital, a surgical sedative, as an alternative. Oklahoma uses it along with other drugs to paralyze inmates and stop their hearts. Ohio uses only one drug and on Thursday used pentobarbital to put to death the killer of a Toledo store owner.
Other states are likely to make a similar switch to get around the problems of obtaining sodium thiopental, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center.
The federal government will either have to look overseas for a source or switch to an alternative such as pentobarbital following administrative hearings, said Ty Alper, associate director of the Berkeley law school's death penalty clinic.
The federal government also must contend with the 2005 challenge to the government's execution procedures still pending in federal court.
"I don't think there's likely to be any federal executions any time soon," Alper said Thursday.
The last person put to death by the U.S. government was Louis Jones Jr., a Gulf War veteran executed in 2003 and sentenced to die for raping and killing a female soldier.
Jones was only the third person — after Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and drug kingpin Juan Garza — put to death by the federal government since it resumed executions in 2001 after a 38-year suspension.
In December, the Bureau of Prisons told a federal judge it planned to set an execution date for Jeffery Paul, 34, sentenced to death for the 1995 slaying of a retired National Park Service employee on federal land in Hot Springs, Ark.