Pope Francis has once again come out strongly against drug legalization, a position that could complicate reform initiatives in heavily Catholic Latin America.
Speaking to participants in a drug enforcement conference in Rome earlier today, the pontiff criticized even limited legalization of drugs, saying that doing so is both legally problematic and counterproductive. According to Vatican news agency Zenit, the pope said: "Legalizing so-called 'soft drugs', even partially, in addition to being questionable in terms of legislation, does not produce the desired effects." This is because, he argued, "substitute drugs are not sufficient therapy, but a veiled way of surrendering before the phenomenon [of drug addiction]."
The Associated Press notes that Uruguay, which neighbors Pope Francis’ native Argentina, recently published the implementation guidelines of its landmark marijuana law. Uruguayan officials have been particularly vocal about framing marijuana legalization as a way to fight crack cocaine use, potentially limiting pot users’ exposure to the more harmful drug.
Because Uruguay has a long, proud tradition of being among the most secular nations in the Americas, Pope Francis’ statement is unlikely to spark any kind controversy there. But it may resonate elsewhere in Latin America, the region with the greatest number of Catholics on the planet.
The pope’s words echo his own remarks during a visit to Rio de Janeiro in July 2013, in which he criticized the “liberalization of drug use.” However, his choice of language reflects a lack of familiarity with the global drug debate. Uruguay’s government, for example, has insisted that the new law is the opposite of liberalization, because its goal is to regulate a black market that was previously left unchecked.
And marijuana legalization is hardly the only alternative response to the drug problem. Some countries in the hemisphere, most recently Jamaica, are opting instead for decriminalization. The Economist Explains blog recently published a helpful overview of the important distinction between these two approaches, providing essential reading to anyone who may be unfamiliar with the difference, the pope included. From the blog:
Decriminalisation does not mean that people can use drugs with impunity. Instead it means that possessing small amounts no longer lands the perpetrator with a criminal record or a jail sentence. Jamaica has proposed that people caught with up to two ounces (57 grams) of cannabis should be fined, but not arrested or taken to court. Drug users in Portugal can be forced to attend classes aimed at getting them back on the straight and narrow. People found with cannabis in Italy may have their driving licences confiscated. By contrast, legalisation means that consumers face no penalty at all (unless, for instance, they smoke in public places).
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