Pope Francis In Brazil Calls Out Drug Liberalization Policies — And He Has a Point


This Wednesday, Pope Francis spoke at the inauguration of a clinic for drug addicts in Rio de Janeiro. As a part of his speech, the pope criticized drug liberalization policies, arguing that, "a reduction in the spread and influence of drug addiction will not be achieved by a liberalization of drug use, as is currently being proposed in various parts of Latin America." He proposed that leaders should, instead, "tackle the problems which are the root of drug abuse, promoting more justice, educating the youth with the values that live in society, standing by those who face hardship and giving them hope for the future." The Pope proceeded to call drug dealers "dealers of death," and proclaim that, "the scourge of drug-trafficking, that favors violence and sows the seeds of suffering and death, requires of society as a whole an act of courage."

The Pope's statement immediately made headlines in Brazil and around the world, and served to reignite the perennial debate over whether drugs should be legalized.

It is a contentious issue. Some argue that drugs should be legalized, pointing to the significant tax revenue that could be generated from regulating drug sales. They also claim that legalizing drugs would deal an important blow to drug cartels, and would end, or at least alleviate, the economic and social costs of the controversial drug war. People who are against legalization are concerned about the potential for an upsurge in drug use. As Joel W. Hay, professor of pharmaceutical economics and policy at the University of Southern California, puts it, "We don't need hundreds of billions of dollars in new medical-care costs, traffic, and other accident costs, reduced worker productivity, and lower educational achievements." Such added costs could outweigh any potential benefits of legalizing drugs. I am in favor of a more moderate approach than legalization: decriminalization.

Consider the case of Portugal, where drugs have been decriminalized since 2001. While distribution and trafficking of drugs are still considered criminal offenses in the Iberian country, possession and use trials have been moved out of the criminal courts, and into a special court composed of legal experts, psychologists, and social workers. Twelve years later, Portugal boasts one of the lowest drug-use rates in the EU, and has seen a reduction in drug-related diseases and overdoses. Furthermore, Portugal's population of drug addicts has more than halved since drugs were decriminalized. 

I admit that attributing these numbers to the policy presents a problem of correlation and causation. But, at the least, Portugal's example shows that decriminalization of drugs does not lead to a dramatic rise in the number of users. Moreover, it shows that decriminalization can reduce the burden that the prosecution of drug offenses places on the criminal justice system. As Alex Stevens, professor of criminal justice at the University of Kent, states, "Before, a large number of people were being arrested and punished for drug use alone," noting that the Portuguese, "saved themselves a lot of money and stopped inflicting so much harm on people through the criminal justice system."

Decriminalization has the benefits of a more liberal approach to drug policy, and lacks the major costs that might be associated with all-out legalization. The way forward, as the case of Portugal demonstrates, is to erase the criminal label from reasonable recreational drug users. That is how, to use the pope's words, we can, "stand by those who face hardship, and give them hope for the future."