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Ashcroft's moral stand out of line

During the confirmation hearing of Attorney General John Ashcroft, Democratic senators wanted to know whether Ashcroft's religious and ideological conservatism would influence federal law enforcement on controversial social issues. At the time, Ashcroft promised to apply the law objectively, even if it meant going against his personal beliefs. Now senators who took him at his word must feel betrayed.

In a double-whammy, the Justice Department has announced that it intends to use federal legal muscle to negate citizen initiatives in California and Oregon.

In California, residents approved the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes in 1996. Since then, seven other states have followed suit. But last month, federal agents began a crackdown on medical marijuana, raiding a doctor's office, destroying a marijuana growing operation run by patients and shutting down a cannabis club in West Hollywood that had the full backing of city officials.

In Oregon, where residents approved a physician-assisted suicide initiative not once but twice, the Justice Department has threatened to revoke the prescription license of doctors who participate in a terminally ill patient's suicide. Like many Americans, we have some reservations about physician-assisted suicide, but we believe it is a matter for dying patients and their doctors _ not the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

Regardless of how one feels about the merits of marijuana as medicine or the ethics of doctor-assisted suicide, the disturbingly long reach of federal authority suggests that this is not impartial law enforcement, but rather the imposition of an ideological agenda. It's interesting how some Republicans champion "states' rights" until a state chooses a social policy at odds with party dogma.

The department says its actions are on solid legal footing and points to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in May that recognized the supremacy of federal law in determining the legality of various uses for controlled substances. However, the court never ruled that federal law was morally superior to a compassionate social policy that allows doctors to try and alleviate the suffering of their patients.

In both states, the issues involve Americans who are facing terrible health problems and seeking relief. A growing body of evidence suggests that marijuana effectively reduces nausea for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and reverses the wasting syndrome for people with AIDS.

In Oregon, only terminally ill people may take advantage of assisted suicide. Since 1997, only about 70 people have done so, and then only after two doctors determined they had fewer than six months to live and were competent to make the decision. The state has now filed suit against the Justice Department and a federal judge has enjoined the Justice Department from interfering _ at least temporarily.

When Janet Reno was attorney general, the department also raided medical marijuana clubs in California, but during the last years of her tenure she took a more hands-off approach. As to the Oregon "death with dignity" measure, Reno made the determination that her department would not interfere with its implementation.

At a time when the federal government should be worrying about the threat of terrorism and public safety, Ashcroft has decided to squander resources threatening doctors and second-guessing the way medicine is practiced. The attorney general should resist the urge to impose his own moral code on the suffering and dying.