The Oregonian, Thursday, November 13, 1997

Push is on to assess DEA clout on suicide

  • Oregon political leaders try to find out whether the federal agency can sanction doctors who write lethal prescriptions under the state's law

    By Gail Kinsey Hill and Jim Barnett
    of The Oregonian staff

    Oregon political leaders Wednesday intensified efforts to find out whether the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration carries the clout to sanction doctors who aid in the death of terminally ill patients.

    At the same time, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., reiterated his contention that the DEA should pursue doctors who prescribe lethal doses of medicine. But he said he has no plans to introduce legislation aimed at wiping out Oregon's assisted-suicide law.

    "I got the information we sought from the DEA. . . . We got the right answer, so I don't have any plans for legislation or anything like that. I think the courts will deal with it, ultimately," said Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees the DEA.

    An aide to Sen. Ron Wyden said the Oregon Democrat plans to talk to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno early next week about whether the DEA has the authority, under the Controlled Substances Act, to sanction oregon physicians who dispense lethal drugs.

    Wyden also has arranged a meeting with U.S. Department of Justice officials to review federal policy regarding Oregon's law. Representatives for Gov. John Kitzhaber and state Attorney General Hardy Myers are expected to participate.

    "We would like to see this cleared up within a week or two," said Josh Kardon, Wyden's chief of staff.

    Kitzhaber plans to contact the Clinton administration in hopes of being assured the DEA will back away from its threat to revoke doctors' licenses to prescribe some drugs if they write lethal prescriptions.

    Wyden and Kitzhaber contend the DEA overstepped its authority when Administrator Thomas Constantine said late last week, in a letter to the House and Senate judiciary committees' chairmen, that prescribing lethal medication to assist in a suicide would violate federal narcotics law.

    Just days before, Oregon voters had soundly rejected a ballot measure to repeal the law, which they had approved in 1994 to allow terminally ill adults to request lethal prescriptions from their doctors.

    The threat of action from the DEA remains, but some of the tension appears to have abated. Political and legal eyes appear trained on the Justice Department; the DEA is an arm of the department.

    "It appears that the DEA has a particularly weak case," Kardon said.

    The DEA letter was in response to inquiries from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Hyde, who told Constantine earlier this year that Congress "would have a serious concern" if the agency allowed doctors to prescribe drugs for suicides.

    The controversy focuses on whether the prescription of lethal doses of drugs is a legitimate medical purpose. Constantine concluded it isn't and thus violates DEA regulations.

    Eli Stutsman,a lawyer for Oregon Right to Die, said Wednesday that he is confident further review will prove the DEA wrong. After Constantine's letter was revealed, Stutsman said he had been prepared to sue the DEA but determined such a step is unnecessary.

    "We realized it wasn't something to litigate but something to talk about," Stutsman said Wednesday. "Litigation would be premature."

    Richard Coleson,a lawyer for National Right to Life, said the DEA is within its authority and should sanction doctors for violating narcotics laws. National Right to Life filed the civil suit in 1994 that prevented the assisted-suicide law from going into effect for three years.

    Wyden plans to tell Reno in their phone meeting that the policy is too broad and that enforcement would amount to improper meddling in state affairs, Kardon said.

    "He wants to tell her the importance of disenfranchising Oregon voters," Kardon said.

    Wyden suspects Constantine wrote the letter in fear that Hatch and Hyde would cut his agency's budget if he didn't accept their view, Kardon said. "They write the budget for the DEA," he said. "They can do all manner of mischief."

    The Justice Department confirmed it is reviewing the DEA's policy on lethal prescriptions. But the department is revealing little about its plans and won't say when the review will be completed.

    "We don't have a time frame on it," said Greg King,a spokesman at the department's Washington, D.C., office.

    Meanwhile, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., is drafting a letter asking President Clinton to intervene in the DEA policy, leaving supervision of doctors to state authorities.

    "This policy would constitute an unprecedented pre-emption of state medical licensing authorities by the DEA," a draft of the letter says.

    The White House has kept its distance from the issue.

    On Monday, Mike McCurry, White House spokesman, refused to answer questions about Clinton's views. On Tuesday, an assistant referred all questions to the Justice Department.

    While the controversy roils in Washington, the Oregon Medical Association said it knows of no doctors involved in an assisted suicide.

    There is no requirement for a physician to contact the Oregon Medical Association before helping with a suicide. But the organization is making available a written Compliance Checklist for doctors who undertake an assisted suicide. A doctor who is contemplating participating in a suicide might reasonably ask the OMA for a copy of the checklist.

    The checklist, which became available Tuesday, outlines doctors' legal rights and responsibilities under the Death With Dignity Act.

    There have been about a half-dozen requests for the checklist, all from journalists, lawyers or people who were active on either side of the campaign, said Robert Dernedde,OMA executive director.

    In addition to the checklist, Dernedde said the OMA is distributing copies of a letter drafted by Physicians for Compassionate Care, an anti-suicide group. Doctors who ask for the checklist also will get a copy of the letter, which offers recommendations on how to avoid participating in an assisted suicide.

    The OMA has two positions on assisted suicide. The organization opposes the Death With Dignity Act as seriously flawed. But it is neutral on the issue of assisted suicide. Dernedde said that in view of the two positions, the organization sees it as appropriate to distribute information both on the process of conducting a suicide under the law and on avoiding participation.

    Although doctors can decide how to proceed, they also must grapple with the messages from Washington about the sanctions they could face for pursuing assisted suicide.

    "If my DEA license were pulled, I basically couldn't practice," said Dr. Peter Rasmussen,a Salem oncologist and member of Physicians for Death With Dignity. "A chilling effect? Yeah, I would say so. Even if they're just talking about it, I'll admit, I'm chilled,"

    But Rasmussen said that if patients request his aid in dying, he would explore their feelings and try to find ways to address their physical pain or emotional anguish. He would not cut off conversation simply because of the DEA's threat.

    Patrick O'Neill and Erin Hoover of The Oregonian staff contributed to this report.


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