Marijuana Court Case Could Impact Oregon Assisted Suicide Law

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jul 1, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Marijuana Court Case Could Impact Oregon Assisted Suicide Law

by Steven Ertelt Editor
July 1, 2004

Washington, DC ( — The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to consider a California law allowing the use of marijuana for medical purposes could have an impact in Oregon, location of the nation’s only law that allows assisted suicide.

When the court hears the California case, it will consider whether or not the federal Drug Enforcement Administration can charge marijuana growers as long as they do not sell the drug or transport it to another state.

In considering that, the court will examine the reach of the Controlled Substances Act. That’s the law Attorney General John Ashcroft has interpreted as disallowing the use of federally controlled drugs in assisted suicides. All of the assisted suicides in the state of Oregon have involved such drugs.

The state of Oregon has filed suit seeking to overturn Ashcroft’s decision. In May, a panel of judges from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Controlled Substances Act could not be used as Ashcroft desires.

The Justice Department has not determined whether it will appeal the court’s decision.

The Supreme Court’s decision in the California marijuana case could affect whether or not Ashcroft can rely on the law to stop doctors in Oregon from using the federally regulated drugs to kill patients.

An attorney with the state of Oregon acknowledges the California lawsuit’s potential impact.

"My job is to make sure that those cases look a lot different," Kevin Neely, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Justice, told the Portland Oregonian newspaper.

Eli Stutsman, an attorney who also filed suit against Ashcroft in the assisted suicide case, told the Oregonian that the cases are different because the marijuana case "argues in favor of the use of a banned substance whereas the death with dignity litigation argues for the continued use of a permitted drug,"

However the ruling in the California case could still have an impact.

Indiana attorney Tom Marzen, who monitors euthanasia issues, told, said there were both similarities and differences in the cases.

While the California case has to do with personal possession of marijuana, the Oregon law regards the use of drugs in assisted suicides, not the personal possession by doctors or patients of the drugs, Marzen told

Therefore, Marzen said that, if marijuana advocates win their case, it would only help protect assisted suicide if Oregon doctors developed or made their own drugs used in the suicide bids.

However, "the Supreme Court could hold that what is good medical practice is solely a matter of state prerogative, so that doctors who prescribe marijuana for cancer pain or a barbituate requested by a cancer patient to commit suicide can only be regulated by states, not the federal government by way of the Controlled Substances Act," Marzen explained.

"Of course, this would blunt federal efforts to stop assisted suicide," Marzen told

But Marzen said it is "highly unlikely" that the Supreme Court would issue such a ruling because case law "clearly recognizes" the right of the federal government to regulate potentially dangerous drugs – such as those used to kill patients in assisted suicides.