A bill that exempts documents disclosing the source of drugs used in lethal injections from open records laws and criminalizes disclosure of such documents passed the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday.
Senate Bill 464's House co-sponsor, Rep. John Maddox, R-Mena, said the bill was necessary to shield drug companies from negative publicity.
"Death penalty opponents are harassing and putting intense public pressure on manufacturers who supply the drugs that are necessary to carry out the death penalty in Arkansas," Maddox said. "And, to be frank, unfortunately, these pressure tactics are working."
Though Maddox said the majority of Arkansans support the death penalty, Democratic Rep. Andrew Collins of Little Rock said drug manufacturers and distributors would not supply the state with drugs to be used specifically for executions, regardless of secrecy laws.
"It seems to me... that this is about drug manufacturers who don't want to sell live-giving drugs to the state for the purpose of killing," Collins said. "They clearly do not support this measure despite what was said to the contrary, and we saw two of the drug makers send us letters expressing grave concerns about this bill."
The bill comes two years after the state was sued by drug distributor McKesson Medical-Surgical, Inc. for allegedly obtaining an execution drug under false pretenses. That lawsuit came about after a package insert for the drug was disclosed while the state was attempting to execute eight men in an 11-day span.
Furonda Brasfield, executive director of Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, spoke against the bill, saying drug companies have contracts that specifically prohibit their products' use in executions.
"Today, every single FDA-approved supplier of any drug sought for use in... executions has imposed binding contracts blocking the medicine's sale for this purpose," Brasfield said. "These companies are not serving the interests of activists, but of their customers, their shareholders and the wider healthcare industry."
Criminal Defense Attorney Jeff Rosenzweig also spoke against the bill, saying that no matter the bill's intention it violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
The bill passed the committee by a voice vote and now goes to the full House for approval. The state currently has no executions scheduled, and all three of the drugs in its supply have expired.
State Correction Department officials have said no more executions would be scheduled until a law addressing execution drug secrecy was passed by the legislature.
UPDATE: The Arkansas Senate on Wednesday approved the bill on a vote of 71 to 16. It now goes to Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has said he plans to sign it into law.