Ruth Ann Dailey: The pope's anti-drug stance: halfway there

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Please believe me when I say I hesitated to write this column.

I sincerely admire Pope Francis and believe unity among Christians, whenever and wherever possible, is of paramount importance.

Moreover, when the pope speaks about drug addiction, he does so with firsthand knowledge: In earlier days in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he opened drug rehab centers and personally ministered to addicts.

So I did pause before deciding to object to the pope's recent comments against drug legalization. I, too, have firsthand insights, though my perspective is different. It is that of an American, a neighbor and a friend.

I pray to God that I never have to go to another funeral of a 19- or 25- or any-year-old who has died of a heroin overdose, mere weeks out of rehab.

But how do we forestall such tragedy? If our sincere but fumbling efforts can never prevent all of this heartbreaking world's woes, aren't we at least called to avoid needlessly, or heedlessly, creating more along the way?

We stand a better chance of mitigating pain and evil if we understand where they come from.

In an address to a drug enforcement conference 10 days ago in Rome, Pope Francis said, "The problem of drug use is not solved with drugs."

Well, that's true -- as far as it goes.

But just as the problem of drug use is not solved with drugs, it is not solved by prohibiting drugs.

Americans know this. We tried Prohibition to stem the abuse of our country's No. 1 recreational drug -- alcohol -- in the 1920s, and it didn't work. It never will.

And, of course, it sparked organized crime and probably incited as much experimentation and overindulgence among thrill-seekers as it dampened use among the more easily cowed. That's because nothing beats the allure of disobeying The Man.

"Drug addiction is an evil, and with evil there can be no yielding or compromise."

Yes and no, and could we explore this further?

The evil is not in the addiction. Addiction is the consequence of (usually) a tangled knot of motivations and genetic traits: Far more often than not, the addict is self-medicating.

He or she is treating depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc., or some non-biological but unbearable pain of living, by using illegal meds that, unlike the legal kind, give you a blissful high as they dull your pain.

But I've also interviewed teenagers who were simply curious and got hooked. Or I've interviewed, or just embraced, their grieving parents.

Using substances that hurt our minds, bodies and souls is "evil," in the broadest possible definition of that word, but the circumstances matter a lot. Especially if we are interested in prevention.

While there's no compromising with evil, there must be mercy and flexibility with evil's victims -- and clear thinking about what social policy works best for whom.

Pope Francis also said: "To think that harm can be reduced by permitting drug addicts to use narcotics in no way resolves the problem."

There is nothing the law can do to resolve the problem of addiction. Neither legalization nor prohibition will work. Addiction requires a different set of responses -- and there are difference roles for government and church to assume throughout.

The "harm [to] be reduced" by permitting narcotics is in preventing addiction. We need to combat the allure of drug use -- especially among teens and therefore, given typical teenage defiance, through legalization.

While legalizing drugs will almost certainly diminish the attraction for the casual user, it won't deter those who use drugs because they need to.

They are the reason we also need far better mental health infrastructure, especially at the high school level, than we've yet imagined or budgeted for.

In the meantime, we should treat all controversial substances the way we have successfully treated smoking. We put a reasonable age limit -- 18 or 19 -- on tobacco use, launched a huge education campaign against it and taxed it pretty heavily.

Then we watched its use plummet. Why not do the same with other drugs that pose no imminent danger to society or self?

I have yet to meet a heroin user who wasn't already drunk or high the first time he or she took the harder drug, and I can't tell you how many parents I've heard from whose kids report that they started drinking less once they turned 21.

When we start treating young people like the grown-ups we expect them to be, those who can't or won't rise to healthy expectations will self-identify as needing the kind of help to which Pope Francis has devoted his life.

If the law sets a reasonable standard, love can bridge the gap.


Ruth Ann Dailey: ruthanndailey@hotmail.com

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