Barbiturates: Law and order

Last modified: Thursday, 25. December 2008 - 6:16 am

 

Controlled Substances Act used to challenge assisted-suicide law

A federal district court judge on April 17, 2002 rejected the United States Justice Department’s attempt to overturn Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law. The Justice Department had claimed that the state law violated the federal Controlled Substances Act. Oregon was the first state to approve a law that allowed doctors to prescribe lethal dosages of medications like barbiturates to terminally ill patients.

Oregon voters in 1994 approved the “Death with Dignity Act.” Opponents filed a legal challenge, and the act was put back on the ballot in 1997. Voters again approved the act that supporters say helps terminally ill people end their suffering. Foes of the law say that assisting with suicide is murder, and that it conflicts with the healing nature of medicine.

Under Oregon law, a terminally ill person can request a lethal dosage of medications if he or she has less than six months to live. Two doctors must confirm that diagnosis. They must also verify that the patient was mentally competent when making the request for the prescriptions. The patient then decides if and when to take the drugs.

Gov. John Kitzhaber, a physician, signed the act into law in 1998. From 1998 trough 2001, 91 people died after receiving the lethal prescriptions, according to the Oregon Public Health Services Department’s 2001 annual report on the act.

The federal challenge to the law came in the form of a Nov. 6, 2001 directive from Attorney General John Ashcroft. That directive banned the prescription of what the Oregon law calls “Death with Dignity” drugs. Ashcroft said in the directive that a lethal prescription did not meet the “legitimate medical purpose” standard in the Controlled Substances Act.

Federal Judge Robert E. Jones in April of 2002 upheld Oregon’s law and criticized the attorney general for attempting to “stifle” debate on the issue. Justice Department representatives said were considering an appeal. No appeal had been filed as of late April 2002.

 

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