Pope Francis offered a simple message on drugs Friday morning: DON’T LEGALIZE IT.
“Drug addiction is an evil, and with evil there can be no yielding or compromise,” he said, speaking at a conference on drug enforcement in Rome.
The Pope’s words don’t jibe with the progressive, even hip, image of a nightclub bouncer-turned-Jesuit priest who has overseen a softening of the Catholic Church’s language (if not doctrine) on moral issues. They are also potentially dangerous for millions of people living in countries that haven’t adopted harm-reduction policies and where drug use is still heavily penalized.
“To think that harm can be reduced by permitting drug addicts to use narcotics in no way resolves the problem,” he added. “Attempts, however limited, to legalize so-called recreational drugs are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to produce the desired effects.”
The outburst was odd, particularly in light of the fact that worldwide drug legalization is an exceedingly dim prospect. Washington, Colorado, and Uruguay have garnered headlines for legalizing cannabis, but the fight for reform still centers on rolling back the draconian tenets of the war on drugs — a fight whose immediate goal is decriminalization, not necessarily legalization. Absent from his remarks was any acknowledgment that the effects of hardline policing can be devastating.
'The Pope’s recent statement on drugs is unfortunate and irresponsible — especially considering that he hails from South America, where drug prohibition has had a disastrous impact for decades.'
The Pope’s declaration also has the unfortunate effect of stigmatizing practical solutions that treat drug abuse as a public health issue rather than a criminal one. Contrary to his assertion, studies of such programs have shown that they actually have produced significant benefits.
Countries that have experimented with “heroin-assisted treatment,” where addicts are provided with safe injection sites overseen by medical professionals, have seen deaths and transmission of diseases like HIV decline. In Switzerland, where such programs were introduced two decades ago, the number of overdose deaths have fallen by half and new HIV infections by 65 percent since 1991.
In Russia, where harm reduction programs like methadone treatment are illegal, HIV rates among injection drug users have ballooned in recent years.
Portugal removed all penalties for drug use in 2001. Ten years later, drug abuse in the country fell by half, deaths from overdoses had decreased, and consumption of hard drugs like cocaine and heroin were lower than in most of Europe.
Blanket statements like the Pope’s also help ensure that all drug use is lumped together, and make the “gateway drug” argument self-fulfilling. In 1976 the Netherlands made a legal distinction between cannabis and harder drugs, seeking to create a division in the market. As a report from the Open Society’s Global Drug Policy Program later put it, the separation “aimed to provide an environment where policies addressing increased heroin-related problems could be more effective. Indeed, within 10 years of the enactment of the 1976 law, the number of new heroin users dropped significantly.”
The Netherlands then started a government program that supplied free heroin to its addicts under close supervision in the 1990s. Since then, heroin use in the country has declined markedly (it is practically non-existent among the young), and there are fewer addicts on its streets than ever.
Marijuana use is also much lower in the Netherlands, where it remains illegal but is widely tolerated. About a quarter of Dutch citizens have reported using cannabis. In the US, where laws for possession are severe, the figure is over 40 percent.
Francis isn’t alone in his conservatism. Policymakers in a position to alter drug policy are still relying on outdated (and in some instances incorrect) data to preserve prohibition.
While they have been conservatively interpreted to this point, the UN conventions that govern global drug policy very clearly allow decriminalization within their legal confines. But Francis even spoken out against drug policy liberalization in Friday’s speech, describing the distribution of drugs to addicts as a “veiled means of surrendering to the phenomenon.”
So what’s the Pope’s solution?
“You have to say yes to life, yes to love, yes to others, yes to education, yes to sports, yes to work, yes to more job opportunities,” he said.
But there’s simply no reason why these affirmations should preclude sensible drug policy.
A regulated framework for drugs could drastically lower the violence and murders associated with illicit markets, especially in transit countries. The terrible toll of the drug war in Central America — which incidentally is one of the most devoutly Catholic regions in the world — would be impossible without the demand for illegal drugs in the US.
“The Pope’s recent statement on drugs is unfortunate and irresponsible — especially considering that he hails from South America, where drug prohibition has had a disastrous impact for decades,” Yolande Cadore, director of strategic partnerships at the Drug Policy Alliance, told VICE News.
Just last week, the West Africa Commission on Drugs recommended in no uncertain terms that recreational drug use be decriminalized in that region.
But a UN Office on Drugs and Crime representative told VICE News that “this is not UNODC’s approach,” adding that “a number of experts think decriminalization can increase consumption.”
John Collins, coordinator of the IDEAS International Drug Policy Project at the London School of Economics, disagrees.
“There is absolutely no real evidence suggesting that decriminalization of personal consumption increases drug use,” Collins told VICE News. “There is a large body of evidence that decriminalization reduces the harms associated with drug use, such as the spread of HIV, overdose, and other indicators, while consumption remains largely unchanged. To say that academics believe decriminalization will increase drug use is just flat out wrong.”
The Pope might do well to reflect on the inspiration of his own church. After all, elements of the Judeo-Christian tradition might very well have derived from drug use. In 2008, an Israeli professor of cognitive philosophy concluded that Moses was likely high on psychedelics when God gave him the Ten Commandments.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford