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Senate Approves Bill to Keep Execution Drug Providers Secret

A measure to keep the names of execution drug providers from the public won initial approval in the Texas Senate on Monday.

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*Clarification appended

A state Senate measure to keep the names of execution drug providers from the public won initial approval on Monday in a 23-8 vote. Final passage is expected on Tuesday.

State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, told lawmakers her legislation, Senate Bill 1697, was a "practical solution" to what she described as harassment and threats faced by companies providing the state prison system with pentobarbital, the single drug used in Texas to execute inmates convicted of capital murder.

"Discussion in the public area has led to a chilling effect for companies who want to supply this compound to the state of Texas," she said. "There are very few doses left of the drug that’s currently being administered." 

In 2013, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced it had obtained doses of pentobarbital from The Woodlands Compounding Pharmacy near Houston. The agency turned to compounding pharmacies after manufacturers stopped providing the lethal injection drug to the agency. The Woodlands pharmacy owner complained to the agency that publicizing the transaction put him in the "middle of a firestorm." He complained of hate mail and phone calls. As a result of that experience, the agency stopped releasing the names of pentobarbital suppliers.

Lawyers for death row inmates have insisted that the state has no proof that compounding pharmacies have been threatened and harassed for providing the lethal injection drugs.

Last year, then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott sided with TDCJ officials, concluding that the names of compounding pharmacies could be kept secret, even though such information had long been public. Adding more fuel to the debate, a Travis County judge ruled in December that the state's prison system must make the providers public.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, objected to Huffman's measure, citing concerns about transparency.

"We are moving into an area here where we are talking about contracts with the state that we are going to hide from the public," he said.

The state of Texas' lethal drug cache continues to remain low. Last week, the state had only enough pentobarbital for two more executions, including the one scheduled for Derrick Charles on Tuesday.

TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark verified on Monday that a recent pentobarbital purchase means there will be enough for a third execution scheduled on June 18.

A similar measure to keep secret the providers of lethal injection drugs has been proposed by state Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo. The legislation made it out of a House committee but hasn't come to the floor for a vote.

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect the details of the Woodlands pharmacy complaint to TDCJ and to note lawyers' skepticism of threats to pharmacies.

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