A papal visit is usually a good thing for Latin American leaders, a chance to bask in the Pontiff’s halo a bit and distract their largely Catholic voters from their usual woes of poverty, debt, and lousy government. The latest visit by Pope Francis to Brazil is no exception in that regard, although he chucked a bit of a spanner in the works last night with his comments on drug legalisation.
A growing chorus of Latin American leaders have been calling for the decriminalisation of drugs in the last couple of years, arguing that it is the only way to end the drug wars that are now claiming thousands of lives a year in Mexico and central America. Among those who back some kind of rethink is the Pope’s fellow Argentinian, President Cristina Kirchner, who says that addicts shouldn’t be treated as criminals. And while the argument has support among some on the political Right too, it has a particular appeal among “Chavista” types, who point out the drug wars are ultimately the fault of those greedy, coke-snorting gringos further north.
Given the fondness of “Francis the Frugal” for portraying himself as a champion of the poor and downtrodden – to the point of such hair-shirted gestures as using an old borrowed Fiat rather than his Popemobile – you might half-expect him to be clambering enthusiastically onto this bandwagon. The evils of poverty being greater than the sin of vice, or something like that.
However, in his comments yesterday while visiting a crack cocaine clinic in Rio, Pope Francis made it clear that he didn’t agree. “A reduction in the spread and influence of drug addiction will not be achieved by a liberalisation of drug use, as is currently being proposed in various parts of Latin America,” he said. Instead, he said, it was necessary to confront the underlying problems of drug use, “educating young people in the values that build up life in society”.
Given the Pope’s clout in Latin America, this is a potentially significant contribution to the drug legalisation debate, in which the “no” camp doesn’t really have many high-profile mouthpieces. I myself have argued about what I think are the potential pitfalls of legalisation in a previous blog here, and I can safely say that in the comments that were posted in response, there were not a lot of people rushing to my defence. My own concern is that large scale legalisation is a leap into uncharted waters that will put millions more people into temptation, and lead to potentially huge rises on numbers of addicts.
What is perhaps most interesting about the Pope’s view, though, is that rather than taking the largely utilitarian perspective that currently dominates the discussion – whether or not drug legalisation would lead to more or less overall harm – he seems to be taking a strictly moral line. Legalisation is a bad idea not because it wouldn’t work, but because taking drugs is plain wrong. Immoral, bad, sinful – all those old-fashioned words that reek of “judgment”, and which most politicians on either side of the drug debate tend to avoid these days. Yes, to legalise might make things easier, but it would be, in effect, to pander to human weakness, and, give into temptation. Which, as far as Pope Francis seems to think, still counts as a serious sin.