Jim Salter

ST. LOUIS: The growing suspicions surrounding where states obtain lethal injections have motivated the Missouri attorney general to propose something never previously tried — establishing a lab where the state can make its own execution drugs.

The idea, if widely adopted, could remove shadowy compounding pharmacies from the nation’s execution system and offer a reliable supply of the deadly chemicals that have become hard for prisons to obtain. State legislative leaders said Friday the proposal deserves consideration.

Chris Koster first suggested a state-run drug lab Thursday in a speech to the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, calling it a better alternative than relying on “an uneasy cooperation” with medical professionals and pharmaceutical companies.

Koster said the process of obtaining execution drugs has become so problematic that death penalty states are weighing extreme alternatives, so a new idea was needed.

“I think that this is a better step than what we’re seeing occur in Tennessee, where they went to the electric chair, what we are seeing occurring in Wyoming, where they are debating the return of the firing squad,” Koster, a Democrat, said Friday in a phone interview.

Before Missouri undertakes the same discussion, he said, “it would be prudent to thoroughly investigate strategies to get the lethal-injection process stabilized again.”

Concerns about the death penalty were exacerbated last month when a vein collapsed during the execution of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett, and he died of a heart attack 43 minutes after the process began.

Lethal injection has been in use in the United States for more than three decades. But in recent years, states have been forced to scramble for new sources of drugs after several drugmakers, including many based in Europe, refused to sell them for use in executions.

Missouri is among several states that now purchase execution drugs in secret from loosely regulated compounding pharmacies, the process shielded by state law. The AP and four news organizations filed suit earlier this month against the Missouri Department of Corrections, in an effort to make the process public.

Koster said he is troubled by the secrecy.

“My hope is that this proposal can be reviewed by the Legislature and that it may lead us to a point where we can appropriately weight transparency back into the execution process,” he said.

Koster believes the state could operate a lab with little expense. A small, sterile room would be needed, perhaps at an existing space such as the Missouri State Highway Patrol headquarters in Jefferson City. A part-time pharmacist could contract with the state to mix the compounds. Licensing would be required from the Missouri Board of Pharmacy and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The top two leaders of the Missouri Legislature, both Republicans, believe lawmakers should take a look at Koster’s proposal.

Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey believes the plan would require approval from the Legislature, not a simple change in protocol by the Missouri Department of Corrections. One of the key factors would be the potential cost, Dempsey said.

“If we’re going to have the death penalty in the state of Missouri — and it’s something I continue to support — then we need to look at how we can do that and make sure it’s carried out legally,” Dempsey said.

House Speaker Tim Jones said it’s probably better “for our state to have more full control rather than to rely on out-of-state, third-party vendors. I think it’s something we should look at.”