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Wyden to Bush: Keep hands off Oregon law on assisted suicide

TOM DETZEL (The Oregonian)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., called on President Bush on Tuesday to quash any administration efforts to block Oregon’s doctor- assisted suicide law by rewriting federal drug enforcement policy.

In a letter to Bush, Wyden charged that the administration is “actively considering” whether to declare that physicians who prescribe drugs under the state law are in violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Such a finding by the Justice Department could put doctors in jeopardy of criminal prosecution or of losing their federal registration to prescribe such drugs as secobarbitol, the barbiturate used by most of those who have died under the law.

“Quietly reinterpreting the law will likely be successfully challenged in the courts, and numerous experts have argued that such an action could have a chilling effect on pain relief throughout the nation,” Wyden wrote to Bush.

Wyden’s letter appeared to catch the White House off-guard. Ken Lisaius, a Bush spokesman, referred all questions to the Justice Department, where spokeswoman Susan Dryden refused to say whether a policy change on assisted suicide is under consideration or might be announced soon.

The letter rekindles a debate from the final years of President Clinton’s administration on an issue that has received scant attention under Bush, although the president and Attorney General John Ashcroft both oppose doctor-assisted suicide.

At issue is how the Justice Department and its Drug Enforcement Administration interpret and enforce the Controlled Substances Act.

In 1997, then-DEA chief Thomas Constantine wrote that doctors could not prescribe lethal doses of drugs covered by the act. But he was overruled in 1998 by then-Attorney General Janet Reno, who appeared before Congress and said the substances act was never intended to regulate medical practices.

Following Reno’s decision, Republican leaders in Congress tried to pass legislation, called the Pain Relief Promotion Act, specifically to prevent the use of controlled drugs for doctor-assisted suicide.

The pain relief bill passed the House in 1999. But Wyden stalled the effort in the Senate last year, leaving Reno’s opinion in force when Bush took office.

Wyden is concerned that the new administration is trying to reverse Reno’s opinion without opening the issue to public debate. Such a move could force proponents of the Oregon law to file suit against the Bush administration.

Kathryn Tucker, legal director for the Compassion in Dying Federation, said Tuesday that supporters of the Oregon law are prepared to do just that.

Unlike Wyden, activists on both sides of the issue said they had not heard of imminent action by the administration. At the same time, they said it wouldn’t surprise them if justice officials were discussing options.

Administrator restates position One impetus could be the new head of the DEA, former Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark. While in Congress, Hutchinson voted for the Pain Relief Promotion Act, and he reaffirmed his support during an Oct. 23 news conference.

Speaking to reporters, Hutchinson declined to elaborate on any policy changes his agency might undertake, but he left open the possibility that doctors could be investigated for prescribing controlled drugs to assist in a suicide.

“I don’t see any obstacle in the Oregon law or our view of that (law) that might impact on the appropriate use of pain medication to relieve pain,” he said.

Over the years, Wyden has tried to refocus the debate about the Oregon law on the question of pain relief, arguing that doctors will withhold medication if they fear being investigated by federal drug agents.

Josh Kardon, his chief of staff, said Tuesday that the administration is moving now on assisted suicide to mollify conservative supporters unhappy with Bush’s decision this summer to allow federal research on human stem cells.

But David O’Steen, executive director of National Right To Life, called that assertion “pure political spin by Wyden.” He said his anti-abortion group has been urging both the Bush and Clinton administrations to reverse Reno’s opinion on the Controlled Substances Act for years.

Smith’s reaction Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., said Tuesday that he was not aware of an impending policy shift by the Justice Department. He said he last spoke with Ashcroft about two months ago and suggested addressing the issue with a formal rule-making process that would allow for public notice and comment.

“I have said, ‘Look, do accommodate as much as you can Oregon’s wish within the boundaries of federal law,’ ” said Smith, who opposes doctor-assisted suicide.

Wyden also opposes the practice but has said he is defending Oregon voters, who backed the law in 1994 and 1997 elections.

The Death With Dignity Act is the only law in the country that permits physician-assisted suicide. It allows doctors to write a lethal prescription for terminally ill patients who are mentally fit and have less than six months to live.

State officials said that during the law’s first three years, doctors have written 96 lethal prescriptions and that 70 people have used them.