The Church teaches that drug abuse is wrong but that doesn't mean we should support the criminalisation of drug users

The Pope has spoken out against the use of recreational drugs, and, it seems, against the possible legalisation and decriminalisation of recreational drug use. Or so it seems. The Zenit news agency carries the story, which reports the Pope’s remarks to a conference on drug law enforcement, at some length, without mentioning legalisation/decriminalisation. Associated Press, which has been copied widely the world over, as for example here gives one the impression that the Pope has waded into a contentious debate coming down decisively on one side. If that is the case, it would not be entirely surprising: the Pope recently spoke in favour of the Union and against Scottish separatism, a question on which the local Church has kept resolutely quiet, perhaps because they realise that this is a complex issue on which a plurality of equally Catholic opinions are possible.

Looking at what the reports say, a few observations are necessary.

First of all the Pope is against drugs. This is hardly a surprise. Everyone is. Taking drugs is deeply irresponsible. By this I mean of course drug taking without a proportionate reason. It is OK to take morphine when in severe pain, but it is certainly wrong to take heroin just for pleasure. Recreational drug use damages people, sometimes severely. So too does smoking tobacco; so too does drinking alcohol to excess; that tobacco and alcohol are legal today is not an argument for legalising all recreational drugs, but must at least give us pause before we advocate a blanket ban on all harmful behaviour.

The criminalisation of drugs for recreational use represents an attempt to reduce the harm that such drugs do. And it is here that we get into contentious territory. The “War on Drugs” has failed, say some; others say it has not been properly fought. But the people on the front line will usually maintain that this war has been fought and has been lost. The most graphic illustration of this is the current condition of Mexico, a country that has seen its government and governmental agencies taken over by drugs cartels. Mexico is now “Narcoland”, as graphically described in the book of that title by Anabel Hernandez. Indeed, it is a fair assumption that the trouble with a country like Mexico stem not from drugs but from being the battleground for the War on Drugs, and the battleground between the cartels. And it is simply not possible to expect a government in league with one cartel or other to suppress the cartels. The government in Mexico is in effect a department of the currently ascendant cartel. But if the government of Mexico were to legalise and decriminalise all drug production, distribution and sale, at a stroke the cartels would be out of business.

This position does not seem to be shared by the Holy Father. However, it is worth pointing out that the “Just say no” slogan is not one found on the Pope’s lips, but only in the headline. That is good news, as “Just say no” is a rather discredited saying. What the Pope says is this:

“Francis told delegates attending a Rome drug enforcement conference that even limited steps to legalize recreational drugs “are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to produce the desired effects.”

Likewise, Francis said, providing addicts with drugs offered only “a veiled means of surrendering to the phenomenon.”

“Let me state this in the clearest terms possible,” he said. “The problem of drug use is not solved with drugs!”

What this means is hard to discern. If a government legalises and/or decriminalises drug use, distribution and sale, how is this questionable? All it is doing is making, shall we say, cannabis available in the way tobacco is. The legislation that regulates the tobacco industry, which differs from country to country, barely registers on anyone’s radar these days.

Again, has legalisation/decriminalisation (which of course are not the same thing) really not produced the desired effects? There might be a point here: in countries were cannabis has been legalised, usage has not dropped; it may have increased, even; but, and this is important, all the criminal activity formerly associated with cannabis may well have tailed off, which is not to be dismissed; and the social integration of cannabis users may have improved too.

In his last point, namely that legalisation may be a front for something else, the Pope may have a point. If one were to promote legalisation in the hope that more people would take drugs and die early deaths as a result, thus ridding our society of social undesirables, that would be bad indeed. But that is not the point of drug law reform. The essential point of it is to help drug users come off drugs, and it is based on the realisation that the current War on Drugs has failed. Not a single addict has been helped by the millions spent on fighting drugs.

I am very much aware that I am arguing, and have been arguing before now, in support of a position which the Pope opposes. Scottish nationalists, many of whom are Catholics, find themselves doing the same thing. But this is not really a problem, because the question at stake is not one to do with faith and morals. On the morality of the issue, the Pope and I are at one: we both deplore recreational drug use. The difference between us is that we see different routes towards the same goal of harm reduction. From the Zenit report, in which the Pope speaks of the Church helping addicts, it is clear that the Pope has in mind many of the communities in Italy (such as this one).

But also elsewhere, where people are getting help in overcoming their addictions. But let us remember, branding someone a criminal is probably not the best step towards getting them to consider detox. Drug addiction is not a disease as such, but it is best seen as a social and medical problem, as opposed to a law and order one.

The whole question of drug law reform is one on which Catholics can disagree. There are other questions that fall into this category: nuclear weapons as a deterrent and the death penalty are two such, and let’s not forget Scottish independence. The theological principles in all these matters are clear enough: what remains to be discussed is how best we promote the moral values we all hold dear. I want the same as the Pope, for people to come off drugs, for addicts to find freedom: I think legalisation and decriminalisation of all drugs would be a step forward. The Pope disagrees with me. But that does not close the question by any means.