Federal Assisted Suicide Law

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A debate has begun on the application of federal drug laws to assisted suicide -- a debate which may result in a new federal law to counter Oregon's experiment in doctor-assisted death. Last November the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) concluded that assisting a suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose" for the use of federally regulated drugs, and that using such drugs to assist a suicide could cost a physician the federal DEA registration authorizing him or her to prescribe controlled substances. But on June 5, U.S. attorney general Janet Reno reversed the DEA policy, ruling that the Controlled Substances Act "does not authorize the DEA to prosecute, or to revoke the DEA registration of, a physician who has assisted in a suicide in compliance with Oregon law" [page 4].

The attorney general added that the DEA could act against physicians in states that have not legalized assisted suicide, and even in Oregon when "a physician fails to comply with state procedures in doing so." By ruling that the DEA would actively help Oregon enforce its policy of authorizing some assisted suicides while forbidding others, Ms. Reno made a congressional response inevitable.

On the day of the attorney general's ruling, Representatives Henry Hyde (R-IL) and James Oberstar (D-MN) introduced H.R. 4006, the Lethal Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 1998. Senator Don Nickles (R-OK), the Assistant Majority Leader of the Senate, introduced a Senate version (S. 2151) four days later. Both bills would clarify the Controlled Substances Act by stating that a medical practitioner who misuses controlled substances to assist suicides may lose his or her DEA registration. The bills distinguish assisted suicide from legitimate use of drugs for pain management, using language endorsed by the American Medical Association (AMA) last year as part of the Assisted Suicide Funding Restriction Act. A physician investigated by the DEA may demand a hearing before an advisory panel of medical experts, who can advise the DEA on whether his or her actions are consistent with the legitimate purpose of controlling pain.

Despite the sponsors' commitment to encouraging legitimate use of drugs for pain control, the AMA and some other medical groups oppose the legislation. While reaffirming that assisted suicide is "incompatible with the physician's role as healer," the AMA has somewhat confusingly attacked the legislation as a "federal intrusion" into "the practice of medicine." It adds that the legislation will have a "chilling effect" on the use of drugs for pain control.

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