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High Court Curtails Controlled Substances Act In Favor of Practice of Assisted Suicide

Yesterday, the Supreme Court sided with the State of Oregon in its lawsuit to overturn the regulations that prevent the use of federally controlled substances in assisted suicides.

January 18, 2005
Volume 3, Number 24

Yesterday, the Supreme Court sided with the State of Oregon in its lawsuit to overturn the regulations that prevent the use of federally controlled substances in assisted suicides.

In a majority opinion signed onto by five other Justices, Justice Anthony Kennedy decided the case of Gonzales v. Oregon, holding that the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 did not authorize the United States Department of Justice to declare that the drugs regulated by the act cannot be used in assisted suicides because assisting in a suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose." Instead, Kennedy wrote that the act's prohibition of the prescription of controlled substances for illegitimate medical purposes only covers doctors who prescribe controlled substances for their patients to "recreationally abuse" or who take part in "illicit drug trafficking." Since a patient who seeks the assistance of a doctor in committing suicide through the prescription of a lethal overdose of a federally controlled drug (such as morphine) is doing neither of these things, Kennedy concluded that the act did not authorize the Department to issue its regulation.

Justice Scalia dissented strongly from the Court's opinion, and was joined in dissent by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas. Scalia argued that the Department's characterization of assisted suicide as an illegitimate medical purpose was, in fact, "the most natural" way to interpret both the act itself, and also the early regulations promulgated pursuant to it by past officers of the Department. Scalia went on to write that "virtually every medical authority from Hippocrates to the current American Medical Association…confirms that assisting" in a "suicide has seldom or never been viewed as a" legitimate medical purpose for a doctor to have and act on. He also argued that even if the regulation did not interpret the act in its most natural way, the Department of Justice, as part of the Executive Branch that serves under an elected President, was entitled to deference from the Federal Courts in how it interpreted the act's language. Justice Thomas, in addition to joining in Scalia's opinion, also wrote his own vigorous dissent.

Contrary to public misconceptions, neither the majority opinion, nor the dissents, in any way asserted that either individual Americans had a constitutional right to assisted suicide or that States had a constitutional right to legalize assisted suicide. Instead, Justice Kennedy wrote that all that was at issue in the case was "interpreting a federal statute to determine whether Executive action is authorized by, or otherwise consistent with" the language of that statute. Also, even if the Department had won the case there was still the question of whether there are drugs that are not federally controlled substances that may be as efficient in performing suicides as the federally controlled substances are, and that therefore the Oregon law legalizing assisted suicide was never really in danger of being completely voided by these regulations.