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Federal Doctor-Assisted Suicide Policy Reversed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Reversing the policy of his predecessor who supported the nation’s first assisted suicide law, Attorney General John Ashcroft said on Tuesday that doctors may not prescribe lethal doses of federally controlled substances to terminally ill patients.

Overturning the policy adopted by Attorney General Janet Reno in 1998, Ashcroft sided with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which had long argued that doctors who prescribe drugs under Oregon’s assisted-suicide law could lose their licenses to write prescriptions.

Reno had rejected the DEA position, but Ashcroft said the DEA had been correct.

“I have concluded that the DEA’s original reading of the (law) — that controlled substances may not be dispensed to assist suicide — was correct,” Ashcroft said in a memo to Asa Hutchinson, the DEA administrator.

Ashcroft, however, said controlled substances may be used to manage pain.

“Pain management, rather than assisted suicide, has long been recognized as a legitimate medical purpose justifying physicians’ dispensing of controlled substances,” he said.

“There are important medical, ethical and legal distinctions between intentionally causing a patient’s death and providing sufficient dosages of pain medication necessary to eliminate or alleviate pain,” Ashcroft said.

While physicians are licensed by the states to practice medicine, the DEA registers doctors to prescribe drugs and the agency is responsible for enforcing the federal controlled substances law.

Ashcroft based his decision on a Supreme Court ruling on May 14 that there was no exception in the federal drug law for the medical use of marijuana and that federal law may not be overridden by the legislative decisions of individual states.

The high court ruled that California cannabis clubs may not legally distribute marijuana as a “medical necessity” for seriously ill patients. The high court refused to carve out a ”medical necessity” exception from the federal law that prohibits the distribution of marijuana as an illegal drug.

“I hereby determine that assisting suicide is not a ‘legitimate medical purpose’ within the meaning ofand that prescribing, dispensing or administering federally controlled substances to assist suicide violates” federal law, Ashcroft said.

He said there was no change in DEA policy in states other than Oregon.

The Oregon law specifies that physicians may use medications, but not lethal injections, to help a terminally ill patient commit suicide. Two doctors must agree that the patient has no more than six months to live and is mentally competent.