As prohibitionists typically do, Pope Francis conflated drug use with drug abuse when he denounced marijuana legalization on Friday. "Let me state this in the clearest terms possible," he said. "The problem of drug use is not solved with drugs!" But what, exactly, is "the problem of drug use"? Francis seems to have in mind a harmful, life-disrupting pattern of heavy use. "Drug addiction is an evil, and with evil there can be no yielding or compromise," he said. "To think that harm can be reduced by permitting drug addicts to use narcotics in no way resolves the problem." Even if we agree that "drug addiction is an evil," prohibition clearly magnifies that evil by consigning users to a black market where prices are artificially high, quality and potency are unpredictable, dangerous methods of administration are encouraged, conflicts are resolved through violence, and consumers are subject to arrest at any moment. It is debatable whether these costs can be justified by reference to the potential addicts they deter, especially since the burdens are imposed on people who do not benefit from them. In any case, what about drug users who are not addicts? Francis seems to think they do not exist.
Although Francis referred to "alcohol abuse" as an example of addiction, he did not condemn drinking per se (a dicey proposition, given wine's role as a Catholic sacrament). But he made no such distinction in connection with the currently prohibited intoxicants, which most people manage to consume without ruining their lives. That black-and-white attitude may not be surprising coming from a man with "years of personal experience ministering to addicts in the drug-laden slums of the Argentine capital," as the Associated Press puts it. Similarly, the work of the cops and addiction treatment specialists who welcomed the pope's remarks regularly exposes them to people with drug problems. It is risky to draw general conclusions from such skewed samples. To put it another way, Francis' encounters with down-and-out paco addicts in Buenos Aires tell us nothing about the merits of letting lawyers and schoolteachers in Colorado unwind with a little Cherry O.G. after a hard day at work.