Magazine article The Human Life Review

Ashcroft to Oregon: Stop Breaking the Law

Magazine article The Human Life Review

Ashcroft to Oregon: Stop Breaking the Law

Article excerpt

On November 6, 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a memorandum to Asa Hutchinson, Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The memorandum, titled "Dispensing of Controlled Substances to Assist Suicide," directly affects the practice of assisted suicide in Oregon. To hear most assisted-suicide activists, one would think that Ashcroft had obliterated rights for Oregonians. In fact, he was merely affirming the fact that Oregon is one of the fifty states and, as such, federal laws apply there in the same way they apply elsewhere.

When Oregon voters passed the "Death with Dignity Act,"' they gave doctors the right to prescribe drugs for the specific purpose of causing the death of a patient. Barbiturates and most other drugs that are used for assisted suicide are federally controlled substances.

Before the Oregon law went into effect in 1997, Senator Orrin Hatch and Representative Henry Hyde wrote to the DEA, seeking clarification about the apparent conflict between the state law and the federal drug regulations found in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).2

In his November 5, 1997 response, then DEA chief Thomas A. Constantine wrote, "As you are aware, the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) authorizes the DEA to revoke the registration of physicians who dispense controlled substances `without a legitimate medical purpose.'" Constantine declared that "delivering, dispensing or prescribing a controlled substance with the intent of assisting a suicide" was not a "legitimate medical purpose."

Constantine's letter made it clear that narcotics and other dangerous drugs controlled by federal law could not be dispensed to assist suicide anywhere in the United States. Thus, since federal law gives the attorney general the authority to revoke a doctor's registration to prescribe controlled substances, physicians who prescribed them for assisted suicide would be at risk of losing their federally issued prescribing licenses.

On June 5, 1998, Attorney General Janet Reno overruled Constantine's interpretation, saying that passage of Oregon's law had made the use of controlled substances for assisted suicide a "legitimate medical purpose" in that state. In effect, Reno said each state holds the trump card when it comes to interpreting and applying federal laws regulating controlled substances. This rationale would permit voters to bestow legitimacy on virtually any use of controlled substances as long as it was couched in terms of having a medical purpose. Thus, just as voters in Oregon deemed barbiturates for assisted suicide acceptable, another state could legitimize marijuana by passing an initiative permitting its use for medical purposes.

But, contrary to Reno's opinion, that's not the way it works. The U.S. Supreme Court made this abundantly clear in United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Coop.,3 a case focusing on medical marijuana.

In 1996, California voters passed the "Compassionate Use Act of 1996" to "ensure that seriously ill Californians have the right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes."4 In its wake, several groups organized buyers clubs to provide marijuana to patients, a practice that was permitted under the new California law.

However, the federal government contended that, while activities of the buyers clubs did not violate state law, they violated the federal Controlled Substances Act. On May 14, 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. In a unanimous decision, the Court reaffirmed that federal law regulating controlled substances applies to all the states, and cannot be erased by state action.

Attorney General Ashcroft cited this decision in his letter of November 6 overturning Reno's ruling and reinstating Constantine's determination:

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. …

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