Supreme Court’s Marijuana Ruling May Impact Assisted Suicide

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jun 13, 2005   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Supreme Court’s Marijuana Ruling May Impact Assisted Suicide Email this article
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by Steven Ertelt Editor
June 13, 2005

Washington, DC ( — A Supreme Court ruling earlier this month allowing the federal government to prosecute patients who use marijuana prescribed by doctors for medical purposes could fortell a decision in a similar case about whether the government can stop the use of federally controlled drugs in assisted suicides.

The court’s 6-3 decision in favor of the Justice Department puts the nation’s high court squarely behind the ability of the federal government to enforce drug laws.

That’s what the Bush administration wants with regard to drugs used in assisted suicides.

"Certainly, if I was counsel for the state of Oregon, I wouldn’t take the court’s decision lightly," Douglas Kmiec, a Pepperdine University constitutional law professor told the Oregon Statesman Journal newspaper.

Both cases focus on the extent of enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

Former Attorney General John Ashcroft has interpreted it as disallowing the use of federally controlled drugs in assisted suicides because the drugs are not used for a legitimate medical purpose. All of the assisted suicides in the state of Oregon have involved such drugs.

Don Daugherty Jr., an attorney who filed an amicus brief in support of the Bush administration on behalf of Oregon lawmakers, said he doesn’t think the marijuana ruling will have much bearing on the assisted suicide case.

"Frankly, I don’t think this portends much for our case," Daugherty told the Statesman Journal. He said that’s because the Oregon cases centers more on state and federal laws versus constitutional issues.

But, Kmiec said that Justices Antonin Scalia and John Paul Stevens gave "great deference" to the Bush administration’s argument that it should be allowed to liberally enforce the CSA.

The Supreme Court may use a former assisted suicide as precedent in the case and ignore the marijuana ruling altogether. That decision affirmed no constitutional right to assisted suicide, but allowed states to craft their own laws on the controversial issue.

Tom Marzen, who closely monitors assisted suicide and euthanasia issues, says he believes its clear that "as construed by the Attorney General to forbid prescribing or dispensing of controlled substances for assisted suicide, the federal CSA has the constitutional ‘reach’ necessary."

Marzen, who heads up the National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent and Disabled, says that means the Supreme Court will more closely look at the statutory issues.

"Whether the CSA was properly interpreted by the Attorney General and the Attorney General has the authority to do so," is what will be the key question for the justices, Marzen explained.