Getting the Blues | The Nation


Getting the Blues

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The same Justice Department vehemence has been directed toward eviscerating Oregon's doctor-assisted-suicide law, approved twice by voters in that state. That attempt, still blocked in the courts, has implications far beyond assisted suicide, since it could subject any physician using morphine or other drugs to relieve the pain of cancer or other diseases in terminally ill patients to prosecution or denial of the right to prescribe, which is tantamount to a denial of the right to practice.

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Peter Schrag
Peter Schrag, retired editorial page editor and columnist for the Sacramento Bee, has been writing for The Nation for...

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Ashcroft says that federal Drug Enforcement Administration operatives can easily discern the "important medical, ethical and legal distinctions between intentionally causing a patient's death and providing sufficient dosages of pain medication necessary to eliminate or alleviate pain." But as any doctor can tell you, that's baloney. The very process of alleviating pain may hasten death.

What's particularly notable about Ashcroft's crusade is its intrusion into an area constitutionally reserved to the states by an Administration professing to honor states' rights headed by a former governor who has promised to be sensitive to the problems of the states.

In February, Ashcroft, a longtime friend of the gun lobby, threatened to criminally prosecute California officials for what he claims is illegal use of a federal data bank to track down illegal gun users. Ashcroft had also threatened to go after Georgia officials for denying gun permits to people that the federal data bank showed had been arrested for felonies but not convicted. Georgia complied, and according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, seventeen or eighteen people facing felony charges are now given Georgia gun permits daily.

You can get endless arguments about the motives. Is the White House's ugly treatment of the states simply the result of political expedience by an Administration that even opponents like Matsui say is highly astute politically, or is there an unbending ideological streak that, in ways never before attempted, seeks to use federal muscle to beat back liberalism in the states with nearly the same vehemence and determination it applies to federal policy?

Through the past two and a half years, the Administration, often flying the flag of the terrorism war, has altered federal policy in ways that couldn't have been imagined before the 2000 election--in its radical aggrandizement of the power to investigate, wiretap and detain suspects; in the concomitant rollback of civil liberties; in its tolerance for polluters and offshore tax dodges; in its multitrillion-dollar tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans; in its rollback of countless social programs.

But the attempt, often successful, to extend those efforts into the states, to use local cops to search out undocumented immigrants for detention, to go after liberal state laws--auto emission controls, medical marijuana, doctor-assisted suicide, welfare and childcare--is unprecedented. Without fanfare or discussion, the Administration appears to be putting the screws to liberal state programs with the same determination it is applying to things like tax cuts (which, of course, are the key to all other domestic policy).

Consistent with that effort, in March the White House decided no longer to publish a key document called Budget Information for States, which reported annually how much states receive under each federal program, and thus made it easy for local officials and advocacy groups to keep track of how their programs were treated. Eliminating the book, said a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, will eliminate the cost of the paper and production of the volume. How frugal. Who would have thought that it would be a Republican--and an ex-governor to boot--who'd bring federalism to its knees?

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