A House committee yesterday entered the emotional debate on whether to legalize heroin as a painkiller for terminally ill cancer patients.

Del. Phoebe M. Orebaugh (R-Rockingham), who introduced a bill promoting the idea, called on members of the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee to endorse the proposal as a humanitarian gesture despite concerns that constituents might misread it as opening the door to illegal drug use. She noted that she is from "one of the most conservative districts in the state, if not the world."

Even if passed, the bill would have no immediate impact on cancer care, because federal law would have to be changed first. Proposals are pending in Congress to legalize heroin for the terminally ill, and Orebaugh said her bill would enable the state to start its program immediately if such legislation were approved at the federal level.

Doctors also supported heroin use when other painkillers are not effective. "I resent very much that the criminal elements of our society dominate our thinking," said Dr. William Regelson, professor of medicine at the Medical College of Virginia. "We must look at the needs of cancer patients." He said about 10 percent of terminal cancer patients are in intractable pain and that he would support heroin use for patients who are dying of other diseases.