- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 7, 2001

Attorney General John Ashcroft yesterday ordered the Drug Enforcement Administration to target the drug-prescription licenses of doctors who prescribe lethal doses of drugs for terminally ill patients under Oregon's landmark law of physician-assisted suicides.
The order, outlined in a memo to DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson, reverses a 1998 ruling by former Attorney General Janet Reno, who barred drug agents from enforcing federal law on prescribing controlled substances in Oregon.
Mr. Ashcroft said prescribing, dispensing or administering federally controlled substances to assist in a suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose." Oregon's Death With Dignity Act, passed in 1997, allowed doctors to provide but not administer lethal drugs to the terminally ill.
"As you are aware, the Supreme Court reaffirmed last term that the application of federal law regulating controlled substances is uniform throughout the United States and may not be nullified by the legislative decisions of individual states," Mr. Ashcroft said, noting that the DEA had challenged Miss Reno's ruling.
"I have concluded that the DEA's original reading of the [Controlled Substances Act] … was correct. I therefore advise you that the original DEA determination is reinstated and should be implemented. This conclusion applies regardless of whether state law authorizes or permits such conduct."
The order does not allow the criminal prosecution of the doctors and describes pain management as a valid medical use of controlled substances.
But it calls for the DEA to investigate doctors who prescribe controlled or lethal drugs to determine whether to suspend or revoke their licenses to prescribe drugs, which is what the agency does in 49 other states.
Mr. Hutchinson, a former Arkansas congressman named in May by President Bush to head the DEA, applauded the decision.
"I am pleased that this issue has been clarified for the American public," he said. "DEA has always been committed to ensuring that controlled substances are prescribed properly, and that health and safety are always of paramount importance.
"DEA will continue to maintain consistency in striking the balance between relieving pain and preventing the abuse of pain relief medication," he said.
Mr. Hutchinson said the DEA had long concluded that dispensing controlled substances to assist suicide was "not consistent with the public health and safety" and that this position was uncontroversial until Oregon adopted its physician-assisted suicide initiative in 1997.
"DEA has maintained that position, but the Department of Justice directed the DEA not to enforce the law in those circumstances," he said.
Mr. Ashcroft's decision also was lauded yesterday by several conservative groups and pro-life organizations, including the National Right to Life Committee, which said the order guaranteed that doctors in all 50 states could not prescribe lethal doses of federally controlled drugs.
Rep. J.C. Watts Jr., Oklahoma Republican, called the ruling "a wise and prudent decision to enforce federal drug laws."
"Prescribing life-taking drugs violates the Hippocratic oath to 'do no harm.' The Reno decision during the Clinton administration created a back-door obfuscation that resulted in the death of more than seventy people in Oregon," said Mr. Watts.
But Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who has backed his state's assisted-suicide law, said the order was "undoing Oregon's popular will in the most undemocratic manner possible. Americans in every corner of the nation are going to suffer needlessly."
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber said he was appalled by the ruling.
"Given everything that the country is going through right now, with the country trying to respond to anthrax, why John Ashcroft picked this moment to inject this divisive issue into the public debate is beyond me," said the Democratic governor.
Kevin Neely, spokesman for the Oregon attorney general's office, said the state will file motions in U.S. District Court in Portland today to appeal the ruling.
Oregon officials said 70 terminally ill adults had ended their lives since the law took effect in 1997, all using a federally controlled substance.
Although she said she personally opposed the practice of prescribing lethal drugs for the terminally ill, Miss Reno said in a June 1998 order that the DEA lacked jurisdiction under the federal Controlled Substances Act to arrest or revoke the licenses of doctors who were permitted by the Oregon law to provide the drugs for patients with less than six months to live.
Tom Constantine, who then headed the DEA, had said after the passage of the Oregon law that his agents would continue to enforce the law, warning that doctors in Oregon could be arrested and lose their licenses if they continued to prescribe controlled substances for something other than a "legitimate medical purpose."
Miss Reno's order overruled Mr. Constantine's interpretation of the law.
The Oregon law provided for a detailed procedure by which a mentally competent, terminally ill patient could request to end his or her life "in a humane and dignified manner."
In his order, Mr. Ashcroft said doctors who prescribe lethal drugs to the terminally ill are required to file records of the prescription, which are maintained by the Oregon Department of Health.
He said the DEA has the authority to "take appropriate measures" to obtain copies of those records to determine whether federally controlled substances had been prescribed in violation of the law.
"When inspection of those documents discloses prohibited prescription of controlled substances to assist suicide following the effective date of this memorandum, then appropriate administrative action may be taken," he said.


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