By GRANT SCHULTE
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska prison officials unsuccessfully tried to buy a key lethal injection drug from a Mississippi-based pharmaceutical company after spending months trying to import tens of thousands of dollars in execution drugs from India, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services ordered about $825 worth of pancuronium bromide last month from Gulf Coast Pharmaceuticals Plus, which replaced a firm that was dissolved in 2013 after it faced disciplinary action in other states.
Documents obtained through an open records request show the order was placed Oct. 14, amid an ongoing challenge to lawmakers’ decision to repeal the death penalty in Nebraska, which hasn’t carried out an execution in 18 years. The four-box order was cancelled a day later, after the company said the product wasn’t available.
Nebraska had already spent $26,000 to buy 1,000 doses of the drug from an Indian distributor, along with 1,000 doses of the anesthetic sodium thiopental, but the shipment was blocked in India because it didn’t have proper shipping papers. Similar orders by Arizona and Texas that made it to the United States were confiscated by federal authorities.
Both drugs are required as part of Nebraska’s three-drug lethal injection protocol, but sodium thiopental currently has no legal uses in the U.S. Nebraska already has the third drug, potassium chloride, which is used to stop the heart.
The latest attempted purchase reflects problems faced by many death-penalty states trying to buy drugs for executions amid a nationwide shortage. It also followed months of public statements by Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts that the state was working to import the drug from India-based Harris Pharma. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has repeatedly said states cannot legally import lethal injection drugs, but Nebraska and others have attempted to do so.
A Nebraska Department of Correctional Services spokesman didn’t return phone messages seeking comment Monday. A message left for Gulf Coast Pharmaceuticals Plus also wasn’t returned.
Gulf Coast Pharmaceuticals Plus, based in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, bills itself as a pharmaceutical distributor to hospitals, pharmacies and physician practices. The company is owned by Debra Ritchey.
Her husband, Kenneth Ritchey, was president of Gulf Coast Pharmaceuticals Inc., which lost its pharmacy wholesaler license in Oklahoma in 2010 after being accused of shipping unusually large amounts of pain killers and relaxants to Oklahoma pharmacies licensed by American Indian tribes.
The company admitted selling 13.8 million doses of three different drugs to one pharmacy in a six-month period. It also acknowledged it didn’t have procedures to monitor suspicious orders or seek a state license before it started doing business. The case, which triggered a wave of revocations in other states where the company was licensed.
The new company was granted a license in March, but regulators believe the management hasn’t changed, said Cindy Hamilton, the Oklahoma State Board of Pharmacy’s chief compliance officer.
“We’re keeping an eye on them,” Hamilton said. She said Oklahoma regulators revoked the old company’s license because it was distributing “huge quantities of medication that could be abused” by the public.
In Nebraska, lawmakers abolished the death penalty in May by overriding Ricketts’ veto. But that triggered a statewide petition drive that halted the repeal until voters can weigh in on the issue during the November 2016 election.
Nebraska currently has 10 men on death row, but it hasn’t carried out an execution since 1997. The state has never used its current lethal injection protocol; the last execution relied on the electric chair.
Dan Parsons, a spokesman for the anti-death penalty group Nebraskans for Public Safety, said the records provide more evidence that the state’s death penalty is broken beyond repair, “and taxpayers are out tens of thousands of dollars.”