WASHINGTON (Reuters Health) Nov 06 - Keeping a campaign promise made by President Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft on Tuesday overturned a ruling made by his predecessor, a move that would effectively prevent the implementation of Oregon's landmark assisted suicide law.
In 1998, then-Attorney General Janet Reno overturned a ruling by the Drug Enforcement Administration that physicians who prescribed federally controlled drugs in accordance with Oregon's "Death with Dignity Act" would not violate the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA). That permitted the law to go forward.
But Ashcroft, in a memo to DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson, said that "DEA's original reading of the CSA — that controlled substances may not be dispensed to assist a suicide — was correct," and ordered that it be reinstated and implemented. Thus, Oregon physicians who prescribe federally controlled substances in compliance with the assisted suicide law could have their federal prescribing privileges revoked.
Ashcroft said he was basing his decision on a 2001 Supreme Court ruling overturning state medical marijuana laws, United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Coop.
Backers of the Oregon law, and even some opponents, are vowing to fight back. A spokesman for the state's attorney general said the state would sue to block the interpretation, and several groups that back the law have said they may sue as well.
In Washington, Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden — an opponent of the Oregon law — said he will also fight Ashcroft's ruling. Wyden last year almost single-handedly blocked legislation that would have overturned Reno's interpretation.
Wyden says the issue is not one of assisted suicide, but of states' rights. "This is about carrying out a political agenda substituting their moral beliefs for those of the people of Oregon on a matter that has been historically left to the states," he said.
Medical groups have also expressed concerns about the potential for the Reno ruling to be reversed. They say that doctors may become more reluctant to prescribe strong painkillers at the end of life if they fear being investigated by the DEA.
But Ashcroft's memo specifically addressed that concern. "The reinstated determination does not portend any increase in investigative activity or other change from the manner in which the DEA presently enforces this policy outside of Oregon," he wrote.
Even in Oregon, Ashcroft said the
DEA could get records that the assisted suicide law requires to be filed
with the state. Hence, "implementation of this directive in Oregon should
not change the DEA's current practices with regard to enforcing the CSA
so as to materially increase monitoring or investigation of physicians
or other health care providers or to increase review of physicians' prescribing
patterns of controlled substances used for pain relief."
Copyright © 2001 Reuters Ltd
Copyright © 2001 Reuters Ltd