FDA agrees to hear from Texas, Arizona about seizure of imported execution drugs

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HOUSTON — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has agreed to hear from Texas and Arizona prison officials after agents seized drugs that both states were trying to import for use in executions, the agency said Monday.

The FDA confirmed last week that it had impounded orders of sodium thiopental, an anesthetic that the agency said has no legal uses in the U.S. A spokesman for Texas' prison system said Monday that the state was appealing the decision, and Arizona officials have said they plan to do the same.

FDA spokesman Jeff Ventura said in an email that the agency will evaluate the states' responses and notify the prison systems once the evaluation is complete.

"The process is currently ongoing," he said.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark said the state legally purchased the drugs. He said the state obtained an import license from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration before the drugs were shipped, and notified the FDA and customs of the drugs' arrival.

He said Texas — the nation's busiest death penalty state — hasn't used sodium thiopental in recent years. He said the state has no plans to change its current protocol of using pentobarbital, but that prison officials want to "explore all options, including the continued use of pentobarbital or alternate drugs to use in the lethal injection process."

Arizona officials have said they plan to contest the FDA's legal authority to withhold the drugs. Documents obtained by The Associated Press show Arizona paid nearly $27,000 for the sodium thiopental intercepted by federal agents when it arrived at the Phoenix airport in July.

Texas has declined to provide any details about its ordered drugs. A state law passed earlier this year allows Texas to withhold the identity of its lethal injection drug provider.

The tussle between state and federal agencies illustrates the difficulties death penalty states have encountered obtaining execution drugs since traditional drug manufacturers barred sales of their products for use in lethal injections.

Ohio has halted executions until at least 2017 because of a drug shortage. In Nebraska, the FDA told the state in May that it could not legally import sodium thiopental and a second lethal-injection chemical purchased from Harris Pharma, a distributor in India, although that shipment apparently never made it to the U.S.

Executions have also been on hold in Arizona since the drawn-out death in July 2014 of Joseph Rudolph Wood. Authorities later revealed he was given 15 doses of midazolam and a painkiller, though he was supposed to die with one dose.

Texas, however, has at least five executions scheduled in the coming months, including one in November.

Associated Press reporter Astrid Galvan in Tucson, Arizona, contributed to this report.

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