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The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services recently bought such a large quantity of a drug used to kill death-row inmates by lethal injection that it now has enough to carry out 166 executions -- even though it has just 12 men on death row.

The state paid $2,056 to Kayem Pharmaceutical Pvt. Ltd. for 500 grams of sodium thiopental from a pharmaceuticals company in India. Corrections spokeswoman Dawn-Renee Smith said that was the minimum amount the company would sell.

There has been a shortage of the drug, which is said to cause unconsciousness in less than a minute, since last year. And the only U.S. manufacturer of the drug, Hospira Inc., said it is ending production because of death–penalty opposition overseas.

Mark Caverly of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said states can give or sell doses of the drug to other states for use in executions, as long as they are both registered with the DEA and the drug was properly imported.

"Basically, the answer is yes,'' he said. "There are some conditions to any controlled substance transfer."

A doctor, hospital, clinic or, in this case, the Corrections Department, can transfer up to 5 percent of the total controlled substances it buys in a year to another DEA-registered entity.

But Smith said Nebraska prison officials are not looking at doing so, even though the expiration date for the batch Nebraska got is August 2012.

"It will remain in our inventory," she wrote in an e-mail to the Journal Star. "Selling it is not an option we are pursuing."

She declined further comment.

The Nebraska lethal injection protocol uses a 3-gram dose of sodium thiopental followed by a consciousness check one minute later. If the inmate is not unconscious, another 3 grams are given.

Nebraska's protocol then calls for two more drugs to be given: pancuronium bromide, a paralyzing agent, and then potassium chloride to stop the heart.

Sodium thiopental is a barbiturate that has been used to anesthetize patients for surgery and induce medical comas. It also has been used to help terminally ill people commit suicide. 

A federal lawsuit has been filed in Arizona challenging the use of the drugs from overseas suppliers, saying they may be substandard and could lead to problems during executions.

Corrections officials in some states have been looking at whether it would be possible to substitute another drug in place of sodium thiopental. Earlier this week, Ohio said it would begin using pentobarbital, a sedative. Oklahoma did so last year.

The Nebraska Legislature approved lethal injection as the state's method of execution in May 2009. The state has not executed an inmate since Robert Williams died in the electric chair in 1997.

The state's five-page lethal injection protocol requires the three drugs to be administered by trained corrections workers, including two emergency technicians who would be responsible for maintaining an open IV line.

Critics of lethal injection have argued that corrections workers who don't regularly administer intravenous drugs may have trouble finding a vein. Supporters say training requirements spelled out in the protocol -- including that members of the IV teams be trained as emergency medical technicians -- alleviate that concern.

Shortly after Nebraska got its sodium thiopental, state officials asked the Nebraska Supreme Court to set an execution date for Carey Dean Moore, who has been on death row since 1980.

Moore, 53, was sentenced to death for killing Omaha cab drivers Maynard D. Helgeland and Reuel Eugene Van Ness during botched robberies in 1979.

Reach Kevin O'Hanlon at 402-473-2682 or kohanlon@journalstar.com.

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