Pope Francis: Not Always Progressive

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

Pope FrancisPope Francis recently made a public statement about drug addiction. Being well known for his progressive stance on issues like income inequality and child abuse within the church, one might have expected a similarly enlightened attitude toward substance abuse.

Unfortunately, that was not the case. Pope Francis merely reinforced the old hardline notion that addiction is a moral failing, not a chronic medical condition. To be more specific, he said, “Drug addiction is an evil, and with evil there can be no yielding or compromise.” With those words, the Pope took a stand, unsurprisingly, against legalization.

While the Pope and I agree that legalization is not the answer to drug abuse, our views on how to effectively fight addiction differ vastly. Pope Francis offered his advice for combatting addiction: “Say ‘yes’ to life, ‘yes’ to love, ‘yes’ to others, ‘yes’ to education, ‘yes’ to greater job opportunities… If we say ‘yes’ to all these things, there will be no room for illicit drugs, for alcohol abuse, for other forms of addiction.” Presenting drug use as a “yes” or “no” question is not only simplistic, but it is incorrect. The Pope’s proposal further stigmatizes those struggling with addiction by rejecting it as a chronic disease. In the United States, 23.1 million Americans need substance abuse treatment, yet only 10.8 percent receive it.  By reiterating the misguided belief that drug addiction is a choice, Pope Francis reinforces the barriers that prevent many from getting the help they need.

Drug addicts are not bad or weak people. They are sick. Yet in 2011, 48 percent of federal inmates were imprisoned for drug crimes. Furthermore, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, 95 percent of imprisoned drug abusers return to using drugs after their release. As I’ve said in the past, you can’t cure a disease with handcuffs.  Yet the Pope’s zero-tolerance attitude toward substance abuse leaves no room for harm reduction, medication-assisted treatment, or offering treatment instead of incarceration for non-violent drug abusers. These methods have helped countless people affected by addiction regain their lives, but treating addiction as a moral failing rather than a chronic condition would dismiss them.

Addiction is still clouded in stigma, but with significant awareness efforts, the public can begin to understand the challenges that those struggling with substance abuse undertake. It is unfortunate that Pope Francis missed a critical opportunity to educate the public about addiction as a health issue, likely because he is clinging to outmoded views that have little basis in scientific fact.

Howard Meitiner
President and CEO
Phoenix House

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  • Elizabeth Berardi

    Howard Meitiner thank you for an insightful and extremely important message. We can only hope someone with knowledge is able to reach Pope Francis and educate him on the disease of addiction.
    The Pope indeed “… missed a critical opportunity to educate the public about addiction as a health issue, likely because he is clinging to outmoded views that have little basis in scientific fact. ” How very sad for those it will effect.

  • Thomas Furtek

    When educated people hear these things from the Pope, they will not value his openion on other important issues as well.

  • NameSkip Sviokla MD ABAM

    I am a recovering addict and treat patients with all manor of substance abuse. That addiction is a medical disease is not in doubt. I do believe that more emphasis needs to be placed on accepting responsibility for the many bad decisions we addicts make as we begin our descent into dependence.

  • kathleen

    I think you “missed the boat” on the Pope’s comments…those of us working in prevention and treatment know the cruciality of protective factors, i.e., “say yes to life, love, and others (feeling cared about, experiencing positive relationships, education and job opportunities…) think he got it right whether you are talking about preventing youth use or assisting someone already addicted. And “evil”…an outmoded concept in this century surly fits when you witness the devastation of drug use on the lives of addicted individual, their families, friends and co-workers.