LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- After surrendering its supply of a lethal injection drug to federal agents in 2011, Arkansas turned to a somewhat-surprising place to look for another drug: a list from lawyers for several death row inmates.
The state Department of Correction this week said it decided to use phenobarbital after attorneys for several death row inmates mentioned in a lawsuit that it might be an available drug. Phenobarbital, which is used to treat seizures, has never been used in a U.S. execution, and critics contend that a drug that is untested in lethal injections could lead to inhumane deaths for condemned prisoners.
"People should not be using inmates as an experiment," said David Lubarsky, who chairs the University of Miami's medical school anesthesiology department. "And that is basically what this is. It's basically experimenting."
As drugmakers object to their products' use in lethal injections, more death penalty states have been looking at different options. But the states have revealed little, if any, information about how they go about picking drugs.
"It's been: Here's what we're going to do, and unless you can prove it's excruciatingly painful, the courts -- they're not experts either -- they're going to allow it go forward," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center.
In Arkansas, Department of Correction spokeswoman Shea Wilson said the agency consulted medical sources before picking phenobarbital, but Ms. Wilson refused to say what those sources were. She also wouldn't say whether the agency considered using other drugs. "Our research indicated the drug would take effect within 5 minutes and should result in a painless death," she said in an email.
But even the paperwork that came with the state's supply of phenobarbital, which is a kind of drug known as a barbiturate, warns that the "toxic dose of barbiturates varies considerably," according to records the AP obtained.
"We have no idea about whether or not the injection of such large doses will produce some acute tolerance effect, in which case you may or may not actually be able to kill someone with it," said Dr. Lubarsky, who has testified in death penalty cases.
But Mike Ritze, a family physician and Republican state lawmaker in Oklahoma, said phenobarbital is humane. "I don't want to compare humans with veterinarians, but for years, they euthanized animals, and you can use anything in the barbiturates, and they're all very humane. Basically, the person just closes their eyes," said Dr. Ritze, a death penalty proponent who said he has used phenobarbital to treat patients with seizures.
Arkansas and many of the nation's more than 30 other death penalty states once used a virtually identical three-drug process: The barbiturate sodium thiopental was administered to put the inmate to sleep, and two other drugs were administered to stop breathing and the heart.
As sodium thiopental supplies dried up, Arkansas and several other states initially turned their attention overseas, obtaining the drug from a British supplier. But in 2011, they lost their supplies to federal agents amid legal questions about how they got the drug.
No one responded to phone messages left Friday at West-Ward Pharmaceuticals, the company from which Arkansas bought its latest batch of drugs.
Arkansas hasn't executed an inmate since 2005, and it doesn't have any executions scheduled, though 37 inmates are on death row. Should executions be set, the state plans to inject inmates with the anti-anxiety drug lorazepam before giving them a large dose of phenobarbital. "The lorazepam is a pre-execution sedative, but it also is intended to offset the side effects of the barbiturate, should any develop," Ms. Wilson said in an email.