Federal government and Oregon clash over the state's assisted suicide law

Tuesday, November 13th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) _ Attorney General John Ashcroft has based a challenge to the nation's only assisted suicide law on a seemingly unrelated issue _ using marijuana for medical purposes.

The Oregon Death with Dignity Act was approved by voters in 1994 and re-approved by a wide margin in 1997. At least 70 people have used the law since it took effect, according to the state's Health Services office. All have done so with a federally controlled drug.

Last week, Ashcroft issued a directive stating that Oregon doctors who use the assisted-suicide law would lose their licenses to prescribe federally controlled drugs.

Ashcroft said a unanimous Supreme Court ruling in May on medical marijuana forced him to reconsider whether the Oregon assisted-suicide law conflicts with the federal Controlled Substances Act.

The Supreme Court had ruled that federal drug law must be enforced uniformly and makes no exception for people to use marijuana for medical purposes. Laws in eight states _ including Oregon _ permit such use.

Ashcroft interpreted the ruling as applying to prescription drugs as well, overturning an earlier interpretation by former Attorney General Janet Reno.

In a directive dated Nov. 6 and published Friday in the Federal Register, Ashcroft said, ``I hereby determine that assisting suicide is not a 'legitimate medical purpose' ... and that prescribing, dispensing, or administering federally controlled substances to assist suicide violates'' the Controlled Substances Act.

The day before the directive was published, the state of Oregon sued Ashcroft, seeking to block it from taking effect. U.S. District Judge Robert Jones granted a temporary restraining order until Nov. 20, when he has scheduled another hearing.

Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers argued that Ashcroft exceeded the authority granted him by Congress by extending a criminal law against illegal drug sales _ namely marijuana _ to the medical use of carefully controlled prescription drugs.

``There's a big difference _ we're not talking about illegal drugs here,'' said James O'Fallon, a constitutional law professor at the University of Oregon.

Under Oregon's assisted suicide law, doctors may provide _ but not administer _ a lethal prescription to terminally ill adult state residents. It requires that two doctors agree the patient has less than six months to live, has voluntarily chosen to die and is capable of making health care decisions.

In seeking to block Ashcroft's move, Myers argued that the federal government does not have the right to dictate the state's policies on medical practices.

Myers cited a Supreme Court decision which said there is no constitutional right to assisted suicide. But he noted that same 1997 ruling also said it was up to the individual states to decide for themselves whether to allow assisted suicide.

O'Fallon said courts and Congress also have historically given states the responsibility for regulating doctors.

``The great irony of this is that we are dealing both with an administration and ultimately a Supreme Court who purport to place great value on state sovereignty and states exercising control over the everyday lives of their people instead of having the federal government intrude,'' O'Fallon said.