NEW YORK (MainStreet) Pope Francis told members of an anti-drug conference he condemned legalization of recreational drugs. This is all the more important, given the pontiff's status as an international pop culture icon.
Francis's exalted pop culture status was cemented when his image was displayed on Rolling Stone magazine earlier this year.
"No a ogni tipo di droga (No to every type of drug)," he said at the 31st International Drug Enforcement Conference in Rome as he admonished the assembly in an ecclesiastical version of Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No."
"Attempts, however limited, to legalize so-called 'recreational drugs,' are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they also fail to produce the desired effects," the Pope said. "Substitute drugs are not an adequate therapy but rather a veiled means of surrendering to the phenomenon."
Francis addressed participants at the conclusion of the conference June 20. During his speech he emphasized his opposition to legalizing recreational drugs. This was a clear reference to marijuana legalization - a movement that has spread recently throughout the world and established beachheads in Colorado and Washington state, as well as in the Latin American nation of Uruguay - next to Francis's native Argentina.
Francis deplored international narco-trafficking during his speech. He urged the assembled group of anti-drug leaders to continue their work. He said he appreciated their campaign because combating the drug trade - what he termed the "most serious and complex problem" that confronts modern society - was noble work.
His message was well received by those who concur with him.
"I was encouraged to see Pope Francis speak out forcefully against the legalization of recreational drugs," said Morning in America radio talk show host Bill Bennett, who was the drug czar during the first Bush administration. "He recognizes what some of us have been saying for a long time. Namely, that increasing the availability of drugs will increase drug abuse, not lessen it."
Some feel Pope's statements will have some legislative sway in influencing the court of public opinion.
"The new Pope's moral authority will certainly add a great deal to stem the tide of legalization," said Ambassador (ret.) Melvyn Levitsky, a former member of the International Narcotics Control Board and currently a University of Michigan professor. "I hope these remarks are published widely and used by those fighting the scourge of legalization which will do great harm to society, particularly to youth."
But legalization proponents pointed out what they believe the error of the Pope's ways.
"What the Pope seems to be confused about is that making marijuana legal for adults is not "liberalizing" drugs," said Morgan Fox, communications manager for the Marijuana Policy Project, which favors legalization of marijuana. "It is taking marijuana out of the hands of dangerous criminals and putting it under the control of legitimate, heavily regulated businesses. It is hardly compassionate to punish adults for using a substance that is safer than sacramental wine. If he is seriously concerned about drug use, he should be looking at it as a public health problem, not promoting failed criminal justice methods."
"Well, for those who wondered just how socially progressive this Pope can be, we now can see that he apparently draws the line at supporting an end to today's unpopular cannabis prohibition laws around the world," said Allen St. Pierre executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
"But, is he really an aberration when other overly repentant liberals here in America---such as California Governor Jerry Brown or that state's senior politician in Congress, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)---also can't evolve sufficiently fast enough to concur with ever-growing public sentiment in favor of legalizing cannabis commerce?" St. Pierre asked.
He observed that Feinstein, Brown and Francis have in common their membership in the pre-Baby Boomer generation. He thinks it is out of touch with public resentment toward the expense and hypocrisy of cannabis prohibition enforcement.
Pope Francis has been praised and criticized since he took office. He has been praised as a new kind of pope who is in touch with the common person. He has been judged as a reformer.
He was singled out for praise by his statement of "Who am I to judge?" when asked a question about gay priests. It was considered an overture to a group that the Church has refused to include in its infrastructure.
But the pontiff has also stepped on many toes. He inveighed against the corruption within the Roman Catholic Church. He excoriated the Italian Mafia.
He created a maelstrom when it was thought he was criticizing capitalism.
Whether pro or con, this pontiff has demonstrated that he is not shy about speaking his mind no matter how controversial the issue. This is why his pronouncements about drug use - even recreational drug use - will resonate with many who are on the fence about this.
But the tide of legalization is a strong one. It is a well-funded movement. Its followers are very committed to its cause. It is international in scope and there is a lot of money at stake.
Will Pope Francis have more powerful influence?
--Written by Michael P. Tremoglie for MainStreet