ATTORNEY GENERAL REINSTATES DEA POSITION ON THE DISPENSING OF CONTROLLED SUBSTANCES TO ASSIST SUICIDE
Today, United States Attorney General John Ashcroft reaffirmed a long-held position of the Drug Enforcement Administration that the prescribing, administering, or dispensing of controlled substances for the purpose of assisting suicide is prohibited under federal law. The Attorney Generals statement specified that the dispensing of controlled substances to assist suicide is not a legitimate medical purpose within the meaning of federal law and, therefore, such conduct is impermissible under the Controlled Substances Act.
At the same time, the Attorney Generals statement makes clear that the prohibition on dispensing controlled substances to assist suicide does not in any way limit the ability of physicians to dispense controlled substances for the treatment of pain. The dispensing of controlled substances for pain treatment, when carried out by a physician acting in the usual course of professional practice, remains a legitimate medical purpose under federal law.
I am pleased that this issue has been clarified for the American public. The DEA has always been committed to ensuring that controlled substances are prescribed properly, and that health and safety are always of paramount importance, said DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson. This statement supports what DEAs position has been all along. It is important for physicians to know that DEA is sensitive to pain sufferers and fully supports the use of appropriate medications that help alleviate these conditions. The DEA will continue to maintain consistency in striking the balance between relieving pain and preventing the abuse of pain relief medication.
As reflected in the laws of an overwhelming majority of the states, there has always been a clear consensus among medical professionals that assisting suicide is not considered medically legitimate. This consensus is consistent with the goal of Congress, in enacting the Controlled Substances Act, to limit the use of controlled substances to those necessary to maintain the health and general welfare of the American people. The Attorney Generals statement makes clear the view of the Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration that dispensing controlled substances to assist suicide is not consistent with the public health and safety.
Consistent with this view, the DEA has always maintained that controlled substances could not be prescribed for non-medical purposes such as assisted suicide. This position was without controversy until the state of Oregon adopted a physician-assisted suicide initiative in 1997. At that time the DEA, through Administrator Thomas Constantine, stated that prescriptions for such purposes would violate the Controlled Substances Act. The DEA has maintained that position, but the Department of Justice directed the DEA not to enforce the law in those circumstances. Todays statement by Attorney General Ashcroft reverses DOJs previous directive to DEA.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in U.S. v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative, 532 U.S. 483 (2001), which makes clear that, under federal law, the Controlled Substances Act governs the use of controlled substances, regardless of any state law to the contrary. The Supreme Courts ruling indicates that the application of the Controlled Substances Act is uniform throughout the nation and may not be nullified by the decisions of the individual states. Thus, even in Oregon, which is the only state in the nation whose law authorizes physician-assisted suicide, it is illegal under federal law for a physician to dispense controlled substances to assist suicide.
Todays decision will not increase the scrutiny of physicians who prescribe controlled substances for pain relief. It remains the position of the Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration that the dispensing of controlled substances for pain treatment, when carried out by a physician acting in the usual course of professional practice, is a legitimate medical purpose under federal law.