On Lethal Drug Abuse Prevention Act

Letter to Congress on Lethal Drug Abuse Prevention Act

June 12, 1998

Dear Member of Congress:

I am writing to urge your support for the Lethal Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 1998 (H.R. 4006, S. 2151). Swift enactment of this legislation is necessary due to a seriously flawed ruling by U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, which would allow the use of federally regulated drugs to assist vulnerable patients' suicides.

The ruling asserts that Oregon, by rescinding its own civil and criminal penalties for assisting the suicides of certain patients, has established assisted suicide as a "legitimate medical practice" within Oregon's borders -- and that the federal government lacks any basis for disagreeing with this judgment. Under this ruling, however, federal intervention by the Drug Enforcement Administration in Oregon "may well be warranted" in cases where a physician "fails to comply with state procedures" regarding how and when to assist suicides. Federal law will protect the lives only of those deemed by the state to be "ineligible" for assisted suicide.

The Oregon assisted suicide law, in and of itself, poses an enormous threat to human dignity and to equal protection of all citizens under law. While continuing to forbid assistance in the suicide of a young and healthy person, this law rescinds criminal, civil and professional penalties for a doctor who assists the suicide of someone he or she believes "in good faith" to have six months to live. Ironically, once this "good faith" judgment is made it will never be proved wrong, because the patient will be dead from a drug overdose in a few days. Oregon's discriminatory policy stigmatizes an entire class of vulnerable patients as having lives not worth protecting. For this reason it has been found unconstitutional by the only federal court to review Oregon's law on the merits. See Lee v. Oregon, 891 F.Supp. 1429 (D. Or. 1995), vacated on other grounds, 107 F.3d 1382 (9th Cir. 1997), cert. denied, 118 S. Ct. 328 (1997).

Current federal policy demands an increased penalty when the victim of a crime is seriously ill or otherwise "unusually vulnerable" (United States Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual, p. 227, § 3A1.1). How, then, can the federal government now adjust its penalties under the Controlled Substances Act to confirm and enforce Oregon's discriminatory policy on assisted suicide -- where the vulnerable condition of the victim turns a crime into a "legitimate medical practice"?

Any "states' rights" argument on this issue is contradicted by the plain language and intent of the federal Controlled Substances Act. Provisions to ensure that narcotics and other dangerous drugs are used solely for a "legitimate medical purpose" (21 C.F.R. § 1306.04), and are never used to endanger "public health and safety" (21 U.S.C. § 823(b)(5)), were included in this Act and its implementing regulations precisely to establish a uniform federal standard that would not rely on the vagaries of individual state laws. The clear intent of such provisions was to prevent the use of federally regulated drugs for lethal overdoses, not only their use for addiction. Obviously, using dangerous drugs to cause people to die is an even greater threat to public health and safety than using them to cause people to become addicted. Moreover, as the U.S. Supreme Court noted in last year's assisted suicide rulings, it is longstanding policy under the federal drug laws "to protect the terminally ill, no less than other patients," from potentially lethal drugs. See Washington v. Glucksberg, 117 S. Ct. 2258, 2272 (1997), quoting United States v. Rutherford, 442 U.S. 544, 558 (1979).

The proposed Act provides a focused and reasonable vehicle for reaffirming federal obligations to protect the vulnerable from lethal drugs. It affirms that assisting a patient's suicide is not one of the legitimate medical purposes for which controlled substances are entrusted to physicians by the federal government. It clearly distinguishes assisted suicide from legitimate pain control practices, using language which received nearly unanimous support from Congress last year as part of the Assisted Suicide Funding Restriction Act. Finally, it provides for peer review by medical experts in any case where a physician believes this distinction is being misapplied to infringe upon the use of controlled substances for legitimate pain control.

The Attorney General's ruling has shown us the alternative to this legislation: A nation where federal prescribing licenses are issued to facilitate assisted suicide by providing access to lethal drugs; where federal officials penalize doctors in Oregon, not for killing their patients, but for failing to do so in the "correct" and discriminatory way. To counter such a gravely immoral and dangerous policy, I urge you to co-sponsor H.R. 4006 and help ensure its enactment in this session of Congress.


Rev. Msgr. Dennis M. Schnurr
General Secretary