The Justice Department's assertion of federal power over the states, exercised so forcefully in recent weeks in the Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) raids of California medical marijuana operations, found a new expression this week when Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that he had ordered the DEA to seek to suspend or revoke the licenses of physicians who prescribe drugs for assisted suicide. The practice is legal only in one state, Oregon, where some 70 patients have used prescribed drugs to end their lives.
The Justice Department tried a similar tactic against doctors who wrote medical marijuana recommendations in California, but was thwarted when California physicians sued and won in the federal courts.
In his letter to DEA administrator Asa Hutchinson, Ashcroft wrote that he was relying on the Supreme Court decision handed down in the Oakland Cannabis Co-op case. Noting that the Supreme Court found that California's medical marijuana law provided no defense from federal prosecution, Ashcroft wrote that, like medical marijuana, drugs prescribed for assisted suicides had "no legitimate medical purpose" and that physicians who prescribed them could be disciplined by the DEA.
The move by Ascroft, an ardent pro-lifer, did not sit well in Oregon. "Ashcroft's order is undoing Oregon's popular will in the most undemocratic manner possible," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D). "Americans in every corner of the nation are going to suffer needlessly."
"Given everything that the country is going through, with the country trying to respond to anthrax, why John Ashcroft picked this moment to inject this divisive issue into the public debate is just beyond me," Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) told USA Today.
Kitzhaber's minions were on the move this week, too. On Wednesday, the Oregon attorney general's office filed motions in US District Court in Portland to block Ashcroft's order. They were joined by four patients whose efforts to control their own deaths would be blocked by Ashcroft's action. And they were joined by at least one physician, Salem oncologist Dr. Peter Rasmussen.
"If I lost that license, I'd in effect be unable to practice medicine at all," Rasmussen told the New York Times. Rasmussen has four patients now seeking the suicide drugs and has treated others in the past, he said.
While the state is asking for an immediate stay, it has also filed a broader lawsuit arguing that Ashcroft was illegally interfering with Oregon's authority to regulate medicine and that he was exceeding his authority under federal law.
Ironically, at the same time the administration was turning the DEA loose on Oregon doctors and California medical marijuana providers, DEA administrator Hutchinson was loudly bemoaning how thinly spread was his agency in the wake of the September 11 attacks. In a Tuesday news conference, Hutchinson complained that with the FBI and the Coast Guard off hunting terrorists, the DEA has to "pick up the slack."
Strange time to be targeting doctors and patients.