- On June 5, 1998, overturning an earlier policy determination by her own Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. attorney general Janet Reno announced that the federal Controlled Substances Act establishes no uniform national policy against the use of federally regulated drugs for assisted suicide. Thus, she said, these drugs may be used to assist patients' suicides in any state which, like Oregon, allows the practice under state law.
- This ruling must be reversed. It distorts and disregards current federal law, which prohibits any use of these drugs to endanger "public health and safety" (21 USC §823) or for anything other than a "legitimate medical purpose" (21 CFR §1306.04). Under Reno's ruling, the federal government facilitates the killing of patients in Oregon, by acknowledging their killing as "legitimate" and providing access to the lethal drugs needed to carry it out.
- In 1998, legislation to reverse this ruling was approved by House and Senate Judiciary Committees but did not receive floor votes. The Lethal Drug Abuse Prevention Act (H.R. 4006, S. 2151) was criticized by some medical and hospice groups for allegedly establishing new and unnecessary federal authority against assisted suicide in states where it is already contrary to state law and policy; these groups feared that such new authority may frighten medical professionals into being less aggressive in using drugs for legitimate pain control.
New legislation to clarify the federal Controlled Substances Act and address last year's concerns will do the following:
- Affirm and support aggressive pain management as a legitimate purpose for the use of federally controlled drugs -- even in cases where such use may unintentionally hasten death as a side-effect ("principle of double effect") -- and provide funding for education and training for health professionals in palliative care.
- Recognize that this policy promoting pain control does not authorize the use of federally regulated drugs for intentional assistance in suicide or euthanasia.
- Provide that a state law authorizing or permitting assisted suicide or euthanasia does not change the federal government's responsibility to prevent misuse of potentially dangerous drugs. The government's responsibility to prevent such misuse in states which have not legalized assisted suicide is already conceded by the Attorney General and would not change.
All members of Congress should be urged to support Senator Don Nickles (R-OK) and Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) in their efforts to clarify federal law, to affirm use of controlled substances to control pain and reject their use to kill patients.