Ashcroft Ruling Blocks Oregon Assisted Suicide Law
Attorney General John Ashcroft yesterday instructed the Drug Enforcement Administration to pursue disciplinary action against doctors who prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients under Oregon's "landmark" physician-assisted suicide law, the Washington Times reports (Seper, Washington Times, 11/7). In a memo to DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson, Ashcroft said that the agency has the legal authority to revoke the prescription licenses of doctors who "participate in an assisted suicide using federally controlled substances." The memo, however, does not call for criminal prosecution of these physicians and says that the "use of such drugs ... to manage patients' pain is medically valid," the Los Angeles Times reports (Meyer/Murphy, Los Angeles Times, 11/7). Ashcroft said that assisted suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose" for using federally controlled drugs (Pfleger, AP/Newsday, 11/6). Oregon is the only state that permits physician-assisted suicide. Under the Death with Dignity Act, which was approved by voters in state referenda in 1994 and 1997, doctors may provide, "but not administer, a lethal prescription to terminally ill patients who are Oregon residents." Two physicians must concur that the patient has "less than six months to live, has voluntarily chosen to die and is able to make health-related decisions" (Eggen/Connolly, Washington Post, 11/7). According to the Oregon Health Division, "at least" 70 patients have committed suicide under the law since 1997, with all using a "federally controlled substance such as a barbiturate" (AP/Newsday, 11/6).
Ashcroft's directive overturns a 1998 decision by then-Attorney General Janet Reno. After Oregon's law took effect in 1997, then-DEA Administrator Thomas Constantine "determined" that physicians "could not prescribe deadly doses of drugs, including narcotics such as morphine, covered by the 1970 Controlled Substances Act" (Washington Post, 11/7). Reno, however, overruled Constantine the next year, saying that the act was not "intended to displace states as the primary regulators of the medical profession or override a state's authority" to determine what "constitutes a legitimate medical practice" (AP/Newsday, 11/6). In his memo, Ashcroft cited a May Supreme Court ruling that the Controlled Substances Act does not allow an exception for the medical use of marijuana to relieve pain (Los Angeles Times, 11/7). "[T]he Supreme Court reaffirmed last term that the application of federal law ... is uniform throughout the United States and may not be nullified by the legislative decisions of individual states," he wrote. Noting that doctors who prescribe lethal drugs to the terminally ill are required to file their prescription records with the Oregon Department of Health, Ashcroft added the DEA now has the authority to "take appropriate measures" to obtain copies of such records in investigating possible use of federally controlled drugs (Washington Times, 11/7).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.