Six nurses who gave morphine from an unauthorized stash to dying patients in agony are in danger of losing their licenses for what many colleagues and ordinary citizens regard as an act of compassion.

The nurses of the Hospice of St. Peter's in Helena have admitted using the morphine when a pain-wracked patient's prescription supply had run out and a refill was slow in coming from the pharmacy at night or on weekends or holidays.The secret supply - mainly leftover morphine suppositories donated by families of patients who died - was kept in a stethoscope box in an unlocked drawer of supervisor Mary Mouat's desk from the fall of 1989 to mid-1990. The number of patients who received the painkillers was not known.

No one contends the nurses got the drugs illegally, or used the drugs themselves, or sold them or administered any drug that was not prescribed by a doctor.

But a state lawyer has recommended the Montana Board of Nursing suspend the licenses of the nurses - known as the Hospice Six - for violating drug-control rules. Those rules require that narcotics be kept locked up and closely accounted for.

The nurses have said that patients writhing in agony sometimes had to wait hours for painkillers. Debbie Ruggles testified she heard a patient's screams when she drove up to his house at night. The patient was receiving care at home.

The case has generated an outpouring of support for the nurses.