Pope 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.
President and CEO