Order Code RS20677
Updated January 12, 2001
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Assisted Suicide and the Controlled Substances
Act: Legal Issues Associated with the Proposed
Pain Relief Promotion Act
Kenneth R. Thomas
American Law Division
The Pain Relief Promotion Act, as proposed in the 106th Congress, provided that
the Attorney General, in determining whether the registration of a doctor for the
administration of controlled substances is in the public interest, should give no force and
effect to state law authorizing or permitting assisted suicide or euthanasia. This language
would appear to have been designed to abrogate the legal reasoning set forth by the
Attorney General in a press release regarding the application of the Controlled
Substances Act to acts of physician-assisted suicide. It would not, however, appear to
have required the Attorney General to revoke such registrations; nor would it have
criminalized assisted suicide or euthanasia. This report will be updated as congressional
The proposed Pain Relief Promotion Act would have amended the Controlled
Substances Act to provide that the Attorney General, in evaluating a doctor’s authority
to administer controlled substances, would give no force and effect to state laws
authorizing assisted suicide or euthanasia. The proposed Act also provided that palliative
care would be a legitimate medical purpose, and some versions provided that a finding that
such care was outside of the usual course of professional practice would need to be
established by clear and convincing evidence. Finally, the proposed Act provided for pain
relief research and education.
One version of the proposed Act, H.R. 2260, was:
! reported by the House Committee on the Judiciary (H.Rept. 106-378,
part I) on October 13, 1999;
! reported by the House Committee on Commerce (H.Rept. 106-378, Part
II) on October 18, 1999;
! passed by the House on October 27, 1999, 271 to 156 (Roll No. 554);
! was reported by the Senate Committee on the Judiciary on April 27, 2000
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
The text of the bill was also incorporated into the conference report on H.R. 2614,
a bill to amend the Small Business Investment Act, but no further action was taken.
Thirty-nine states forbid assisted suicide by statute,1 and six states prohibit assisted
suicide through application of common law.2 Four states appear to have neither a statute
nor common law which prohibits assisted suicide.3 Although various proposals legalizing
the practice have been considered,4 only the state of Oregon has a statute permitting
physician-assisted suicide.5 Federal law currently does not forbid assisted suicide, although
Alaska, Alaska Stat. §11.41.120(a)(2) (1978); Arizona, Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. §13-1103(a)(3)
(1989); Arkansas, Ark. Code Ann. §5-10-104(a)(2) (1987); California, Cal. Penal Code §401
(1998); Colorado, Colo. Rev. Stat. §18-3-104(1)(B) (1990); Connecticut , Conn. Gen. Stat. §§53a,
56(a)(2) (1997); Delaware, Del. Code Ann., tit. 11, 645 (1995); Florida, Fla. Stat. Ann. §782.08
(1992); Georgia, Ga. Code Ann. §16-5-5(b) (1994); Hawaii, Haw. Rev. Stat. §707-702(1)(B)
(1988); Illinois, Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 5/12-31(1992); Indiana, Ind. Stat. Ann. §35-42-1-2 (1998);
Iowa, Iowa Code Ann. §707a.2, 707a.3 (1996); Kansas, Kan. Stat. Ann. §31-3406 (1992);
Kentucky, Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. §216:302 (1994); Louisiana, La. R.S. 14:32.12 (1999); Maine,
Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. Tit. 17a, §204 (1983); Maryland, Md. Ann. Code Art. 27, §416 (1999);
Michigan, Act of December 15, 1992, 1992 P.A. 270; Minnesota, Minn. Stat. Ann. §609.215
(1998); Mississippi, Miss. Code Ann. §97-3-49 (1994); Missouri, Mo. Ann. Stat. §565.023
(1983); Montana, Mont. Code Ann. §45-5-105 (1981); Nebraska, Neb. Rev. Stat. §28-307 (Supp.
1977); New Hampshire, N.H. Stat. Ann. §630:4 (1997); New Jersey, N.J. Stat. Ann. §2c:11-6
(1995); New Mexico, N.M. Stat. Ann. §30-2-4 (1978); New York, N.Y. Penal Law §120.30
(Mckinney 1997); North Dakota, N.D. Cent. Code §12.1-16-04 (1991); Oklahoma, Okla. Stat.
Ann. Tit. 21, §818 (1983); Pennsylvania, 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §2505 (1998); Rhode Island,
R.I. Gen. Laws §11-60-1, 11-60-3 (1996); South Carolina, S.C. Code Ann. §16-3-1090 (1998);
South Dakota, S.D. Codified Laws Ann. §22-16-37 (1998); Tennessee, Tenn. Health & Safety
Code Ann. §672.020 (West 1992); Texas, Tex. Penal Code Ann §22.08 (1994); Virginia, Va.
Code Ann., 8.01 622.1 (Michie 1999),Washington, Wash. Rev. Code Ann. §9a.36.060 (1998);
Wisconsin, Wis. Stat. Ann. §154.11(6) (1998); see also Model Penal Code §210.5.
Alabama, Idaho, Massachusetts, Nevada, Vermont, and West Virginia.
North Carolina, Ohio, Utah and Wyoming.
During the nineties, voters in California and Washington defeated assisted suicide ballot
proposals. In November 1998, voters in Michigan defeated a ballot measure to legalize
doctor-assisted suicide. Also in 1998, proposed legislation legalizing doctor-assisted suicide was
defeated in Maine. Although many such measures have been introduced into legislatures, they
generally expire in committee, and seldom reach the floor of the full legislative body.
Or. Rev. Stat. 127.800-.995 (1995). The Oregon Death with Dignity Act was adopted as the
result of a statewide referendum. The Oregon legislature responded by setting a new referendum
proposing repeal of the Act, but the repeal was defeated. Meanwhile, the Act was challenged in a
federal court, which struck it down as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth
Amendment. Lee v. Oregon, 891 F. Supp. 1429, 1431 (D. Or. 1995). The United States Court of
Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, however, reversed, holding that the plaintiffs were not sufficiently
threatened by implementation of the law to obtain standing. Lee v. Oregon, 107 F.3d 1382 (9th
The core of the Oregon Death With Dignity Act provides that any competent Oregon resident
who has been determined by two physicians to be suffering from a terminal disease, and who has
voluntarily expressed his or her wish to die, may make a written request for medication for the
the "Assisted Suicide Funding Restriction Act of 1997"6 prohibits the use of federal funds
to pay for assisted suicide.
In November of 1997, a Drug Enforcement Agency staff report concluded that
prescribing a controlled substance with the intent of assisting a suicide would not be a
legitimate medical purpose and therefore would violate the Controlled Substances Act.
Consequently, the Drug Enforcement Administration issued a warning that under the
Controlled Substances Act, doctors could lose their licenses to prescribe drugs if they
helped someone commit suicide. On June 5, 1998, however, the Department of Justice
(DOJ) issued a press release rejecting this conclusion.
The DOJ press release reads, in part, as follows:
Physicians . . . are authorized to prescribe and distribute scheduled drugs only pursuant
to their registration with the DEA, and the unauthorized distribution of drugs is
generally subject to criminal and administrative action. The relevant provisions of the
CSA provide criminal penalties for physicians who dispense controlled substances
beyond "the course of professional practice," and provide for revocation of the DEA
drug registrations of physicians who have engaged either in such criminal conduct or
in other "conduct which may threaten the public health and safety." Because these
terms are not further defined by the statute, we must look to the purpose of the CSA to
understand their scope.
The CSA was intended to keep legally available controlled substances within lawful
channels of distribution and use. It sought to prevent both the trafficking in these
substances for unauthorized purposes and drug abuse. . . . There is no evidence that
Congress, in the CSA, intended to displace the states as the primary regulators of the
medical profession, or to override a state's determination as to what constitutes
legitimate medical practice in the absence of a federal law prohibiting that practice.
Indeed, the CSA is essentially silent with regard to regulating the practice of medicine
that involves legally available drugs except for certain specific regulations dealing with
the treatment of addicts.
The state of Oregon has reached the considered judgment that physician-assisted suicide
should be authorized under narrow conditions and in compliance with certain detailed
purpose of ending his or her life. A "terminal disease" is defined as an incurable and irreversible
disease that has been medically confirmed and will, within reasonable medical judgment, produce
death within six months. The Act also sets forth specific requirements and procedures that must
be satisfied before a patient can be prescribed a lethal dose of medication.
The patient must be informed by an attending doctor of his or her diagnosis, prognosis, the
potential risks associated with taking the medication, the probable result of taking the medication,
and the feasible alternatives, including, but not limited to, comfort care, hospice care, and pain
control. A second consulting physician must then confirm the terminal illness and determine that
the patient is acting voluntarily. Further, if there is any indication that the patient may be suffering
from a psychiatric or psychological disorder, or depression-causing impaired judgment, either
physician must refer the patient for counseling. If there is a referral, no lethal medication may be
prescribed until the person performing the counseling concludes that the patient is not suffering
from a psychiatric or psychological disorder, or depression causing impaired judgment.
Pub. L. 105-12 (1997).
procedures. Under these circumstances, we have concluded that the CSA does not
authorize DEA to prosecute, or to revoke the DEA registration of, a physician who has
assisted in a suicide in compliance with Oregon law. . . .
The DOJ press release notes that physicians who dispense controlled substances
beyond "the course of professional practice" may be subject to criminal penalties, and that
those who engage in "conduct which may threaten the public health and safety" may have
their authority to prescribe controlled substances revoked. Although the press release
does not provide citations for these standards, the phrase "the course of professional
practice" may be found in 21 C.F.R. §1306.04 (1999), which provides that:
A prescription for a controlled substance to be effective must be issued for a legitimate
medical purpose by an individual practitioner acting in the usual course of his
professional practice. . . . An order purporting to be a prescription issued not in the
usual course of professional treatment . . . is not a prescription within the meaning and
intent of section 309 of the Act (21 U.S.C. 829) and the person . . . issuing it shall be
subject to the penalties provided for violations of the provisions of law relating to
Some variation of the other phrase used in the DOJ press release, "conduct which
may threaten public health and safety," is relevant to two different sections of the code:
21 U.S.C. §§823 and 824. Under §823, the Attorney General shall "register" or authorize
a physician to prescribe or dispense controlled substances if it is consistent with the "public
interest."7 In determining the public interest, a variety of factors may be considered,
including whether such registration is "consistent with the public health and safety." Under
21 U.S.C. §824, a registration "may" be revoked for a number of reasons, including
whether the physician has committed such acts as would render his registration
inconsistent with the "public interest" as evaluated under the factors found in § 823.8
Both the House-passed H.R. 2260, the version of H.R. 2260 reported by the Senate
Judiciary Committee and S. 1272 would have, among other things, amended 21 U.S.C.
§823 by adding the following at the end:
Factors to be considered include: (1) maintenance of effective control against diversion of
particular controlled substances into other than legitimate medical, scientific, and industrial
channels; (2) compliance with applicable State and local law; (3) prior conviction record of
applicant under Federal or State laws relating to the manufacture, distribution, or dispensing of
such substances; (4) past experience in the distribution of controlled substances; and (5) such other
factors as may be relevant to and consistent with the public health and safety.
Such factors include whether the physician has: (1) materially falsified any application filed
pursuant to or required by this title or title II; (2) been convicted of a felony under this title or title
III or any other law of the United States, or of any State, relating to any substance defined in this
title as a controlled substance or a list I chemical; (3) had his State license or registration
suspended, revoked, or denied by competent State authority and is no longer authorized by State
law to engage in the manufacturing, distribution, or dispensing of controlled substances or list I
chemicals or has had the suspension, revocation, or denial of his registration recommended by
competent State authority; (4) committed such acts as would render his registration under 21
U.S.C.§ 823 inconsistent with the public interest as determined under such section; or (5) been
excluded (or directed to be excluded) from participation in a program pursuant to section 1128(a)
of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §1320a-7(a).
(1) For purposes of this Act and any regulations to implement this Act, alleviating pain
or discomfort in the usual course of professional practice is a legitimate medical
purpose for the dispensing, distributing, or administering of a controlled substance that
is consistent with public health and safety, even if the use of such a substance may
increase the risk of death. Nothing in this section authorizes intentionally dispensing,
distributing, or administering a controlled substance for the purpose of causing death
or assisting another person in causing death.
(2) Notwithstanding any other provision of this Act, in determining whether a
registration is consistent with the public interest under this Act, the Attorney General
shall give no force and effect to State law authorizing or permitting assisted suicide or
(3) Paragraph (2) applies only to conduct occurring after the date of the enactment of
Paragraph (2) of this section appears to be the core of the language intended to
discourage the practice of assisted suicide. Under this paragraph, the Attorney General,
in evaluating registrations, "shall give no force and effect to State law authorizing or
permitting assisted suicide or euthanasia." The intended effect of this language, however,
is unclear, since the Attorney General does not have the legal authority to enforce Oregon
laws. Rather, in her press release, Attorney General Reno indicated that the Oregon state
law would be a standard by which she would interpret the phrases "course of professional
practice" and "conduct which may threaten the public health and safety." Thus, it is not
clear whether "giving force and effect" is an accurate description of how Oregon state law
is utilized in the DOJ press release.
It is likely, however, that a court would construe the terms "give force and effect" to
be consistent with the obvious congressional intent that such state laws should not be
considered in interpreting the meaning of 21 U.S.C. §§832 and 824.9 The language in
question, however, still would not appear to require the Attorney General to deny
registration to physicians who have engaged in assisted suicide, or to require that the
Attorney General revoke the licenses of such physicians. Rather, it would require the
Attorney General to reevaluate whether the "public interest" would be served by allowing
the registration of doctors who are engaged in such activity, this time without
consideration of existing state laws authorizing or permitting suicide or euthanasia.10
Thus, the language in paragraph (2) does not appear to impose a legal standard for
registration of doctors, but rather may be an attempt to abrogate the line of legal reasoning
which underpins the DOJ press release.11 As the term "public interest" is broad and
House Rep. 106-378, 106th Cong., 1st Session (1999).
This legislation does not address how the Attorney General should evaluate states that neither
authorize nor forbid assisted suicide. Further, while the Attorney General must ("shall") register
physicians to handle controlled substances if it is not inconsistent with public policy, she is not
required to ("may") revoke such registration upon a finding that it is inconsistent with the public
It should be noted, however, that this language would not appear intended to affect physicians
ambiguous, paragraph (2) would appear to leave the Department of Justice with wide
discretion to consider other factors to determine whether the revocation of a doctor's
license for engaging in assisted suicide was in the public interest. DOJ has indicated,
however, that the Administration strongly opposes the practice of physician-assisted
suicide.12 Thus, absent the concerns raised by DOJ regarding federal government
establishment of medical practice policies for the states, the Administration might well
conclude that the practice of assisted suicide is not in the public interest, and withholding
or revoking the controlled substances registration of physicians engaging in such would
The other relevant paragraph in the proposed Act, paragraph (1), appears to be of
negligible legal impact. The first sentence of paragraph (1) would establish that for
purposes of the entire Act, the provision of palliative care is a legitimate medical practice
consistent with the public interest. Although welcomed by a large part of the medical
community as a clarification, it seems unlikely that the provision of palliative care by itself
would be found by the Department of Justice to be either inconsistent with the public
interest or an illegitimate medical practice, even absent the language of this bill. Thus, the
effect of this language appears merely to reinforce existing practice.
The meaning of the second sentence of paragraph (1) would also appear to be
noncontroversial, but questions have been raised as to its impact. At first glance, the
language would appear to merely be a rule of construction, making clear that the language
in the first sentence (discussed above) does not authorize assisted suicide or euthanasia.
In an October 19, 1999 letter to the Honorable Henry J. Hyde, however, the Department
of Justice maintains that the sentence "[n]othing in this section authorizes intentionally
dispensing, distributing, or administering a controlled substance for the purpose of causing
death or assisting another person in causing death," would make it a federal crime for a
physician to dispense a controlled substance to aid a suicide, thus exposing him or her to
a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence.
Such an interpretation would appear to be suspect. The second sentence of paragraph
(1) indicates only that nothing in §823 authorizes assisted suicide or euthanasia, leaving
unanswered the question of whether some other portion of the Act might do so. The fact
that the first sentence of the paragraph authorizes palliative care under the Act might
arguably be seen by a court as implying that the Act does not authorize assisted suicide or
euthanasia. However, given the reasoning of the Department of Justice that compliance
with state law is generally sufficient to establish “legitimate medical practice,” it is unlikely
that a court would find this alternate interpretation sufficiently clear to support a criminal
who choose to engage in assisted suicide or euthanasia using prescription drugs that are not listed
as controlled substances.
Letter from Department of Justice to the Honorable Henry Hyde, Chairman, Committee on the
Judiciary (October 19, 1999).