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Pope Says Drug War Kills Millions, But Doesn’t Want to End It

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Pope Francis’s visit to the U.S. has dominated much of the political discussion this week. Speaking at the White House, before Congress and at the United Nations, he has drawn attention to policy issues ranging from climate change to immigration to the death penalty.

And on Friday he even had something to say about the war on drugs.

After addressing the U.N. about traditional military conflicts, he added, “along the same lines I would mention another kind of conflict, which is not always so open yet is silently killing millions of people. Another kind of war, experienced by many of our societies as a result of the narcotics trade.”

Francis said that the illegal drug trade causes corruption “which has penetrated to the different levels of social, political, military, artistic and religious life” and had “given rise to a parallel structure which threatens the credibility of our institutions.”

The rhetoric sounds very similar to that of legalization advocates, who argue that ending prohibition and bringing the drug trade aboveground would take profits away from cartels and gangs that control the illegal trade and use violence and bribe officials to protect their marketshare.

But Francis is no fan of legalization, at least as of now. “Drug addiction is an evil, and with evil there can be no yielding or compromise,” he said last year at a drug enforcement conference in Rome. “To think that harm can be reduced by permitting drug addicts to use narcotics in no way resolves the problem.”

He said that proposals “to legalize so-called ‘recreational drugs’ are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to produce the desired effects.”

In his new remarks on Friday at the U.N., Francis said that the war on drugs is “taken for granted but poorly fought,” adding that “drug trafficking is by its very nature accompanied by trafficking in persons, money laundering, the arms trade, child exploitation and other forms of corruption.”

But is that really true? If drugs were legalized and regulated so that the trade were controlled by licensed, taxpaying businesses instead of organized crime networks, would the business “by its very nature” go hand in hand with gun-running, human trafficking and corruption?

Looking at the American experience with alcohol, one would have to say no. While the booze trade certainly was accompanied by many of those crimes against persons and property during prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s, no one could claim today that legal Budweiser and Jack Daniels distributors regularly gun one another down in turf battles. And that’s why many reform advocates argue that legalizing and regulating marijuana and other drugs would reduce crime, corruption and violence.

Pope Francis has surprised many observers by making relatively progressive comments about homosexuality and the environment but, as of now, his views on drug policy seem fairly traditional and out of step with where the global debate on the issue seems to be headed, which is away from prohibition.

That could change, however. The pope is scheduled to visit a correctional facility in Philadelphia this weekend, and is expected to meet with at least one man serving a long sentence for marijuana, according to the Huffington Post.

If there’s anything that can change this pope’s mind about the morality and effectiveness of criminalizing drugs, perhaps standing face to face with people who are behind bars as a result of prohibition will do the trick.

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