The Vatican’s top personality on social justice issues has voiced his concern for the increased demand for drugs, including recreational marijuana, saying debate on the plant’s usage doesn’t take ethical concerns into account.
In a June 26 letter on the occasion of the U.N. International Day against Abuse and Illicit Trafficking of Drugs, Cardinal Peter Turkson lamented the fact that narcotics “continue to rage in impressive forms and dimensions” throughout the world.
“It is a phenomenon that is fueled – not without concessions and compromises on the part of institutions – by a shameful market that crosses national and continental borders, intertwined with mafias and drug trafficking,” he said.
Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, Cardinal Turkson noted that compared to the recent past, drugs have now become “a consumer product made compatible with everyday life, with leisure activity and even with the pursuit of well-being.”
Pointing specifically to cocaine, he noted that the drug is linked to the spread of heroin, which at 80 percent represents the highest number of new requests for opioid-related treatments in Europe.
However, despite the high numbers for heroin and opioid treatment requests, the cardinal noted that “the most commonly consumed recreational drug is cannabis.”
The current, raging international debate on the use of the drug “tends to overlook the ethical judgment of the substance, by definition negative as with any other drug,” he said, pointing to the current focus on its possible therapeutic uses.
This, he stressed, is “a field in which we await scientific data to be validated by monitoring periods, as for any experiment worthy of public consideration.”
According to September 2016 report from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which compared marijuana-related statistics from previous years in Colorado to data from 2013-2015, the first years after the legalization of recreational marijuana in the state, the prospects of the drug’s increased use are grim.
Not only have the number of marijuana-related deaths, hospitalizations and traffic accidents increased since the drug’s recreational use was legalized, there has also been growing concern over marijuana-related crime and a decrease in the IQ of youths who use it.
But before making a firm decision on the issue that is perhaps based on various prejudices, Cardinal Turkson said it would be better to first “understand trends in the use of cannabis, related damages and the consequences of regulatory policies in the various countries.”
It’s especially important to recognize the factors “which push the illegal market to develop products intended to affect patterns of consumption and to reaffirm the primacy of the desire that is compulsively satisfied by the substance.”
On this point, concern has grown for many that the recreational use of marijuana is often a gateway for youth to become addicted, and eventually move on to other drugs such as cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, or meth.
In addition to voicing his concerns on marijuana, heroin, and the dangers of using them to improve one’s “wellbeing,” Cardinal Turkson also pointed to the risks of other addictive behaviors such as gambling, saying its legalization, even in cases aimed at unmasking its criminal managers, “exponentially increases the number of pathological players.”
“Moreover, taxation by the state is to be considered incompatible from an ethical standpoint and contradictory in terms of prevention,” he said, adding that the development of “models of intervention and adequate monitoring systems, associated with the allocation of funds, is highly desirable to tackle the phenomenon.”
The cardinal noted that as the array of addictions continues to diversify, “indifference and at times indirect complicity in this phenomenon contributes to diverting the attention of public opinion and governments, focused on other emergencies.”
Plans to fight the increasing demand for drugs often collapse, he said, explaining that the present-day state of addictions shows “gaps in planning, policies and prospects,” which in turn is a sign of “sluggish progress” in the face of the drug market, “which is highly competitive and flexible to demand, and always open to novelties such as recently-created, extremely powerful synthetic opiates, ecstasy and amphetamines.”
“It is precisely the growing and widespread consumption of ecstasy that may serve as an indicator of how the use of illicit substances has now spread into everyday areas of life,” he said, adding that it could also be an indication of how the ecstasy user no longer identifies with the heroin addict, but “with the new profile of the user of multiple substances and alcohol.”
Because of this, strategies of intervention can’t depend solely on reduced damage, “nor can drugs still be considered as a phenomenon that is collusive with social disorder and deviance.”
Rather, damage reduction “must necessarily involve taking on board both the toxicological aspect and integration with personalized therapeutic programs of a psycho-social nature, without giving rise to forms of chronic use, which are harmful to the person and ethically reprehensible,” the cardinal said.
Cardinal Turkson stressed the importance of not seeing the addict as a problem to be solved or as being beyond the hope of rehabilitation.
To consider people as irrecoverable, he said, “is an act of capitulation that denies the psychological dynamics of change and offers an alibi for disengagement from the addict and the institutions that have the task of preventing and treating.”
“It cannot be accepted that society metabolizes drug use as a chronic epochal trait, similar to alcoholism and tobacco, withdrawing from exchange on the margins of freedom of the state and the citizen in relation to substance use,” he said.
The cardinal recognized that there is no singular cause of drug use, but rather a panorama of causes including the absence of a family, various social pressures, the propaganda of drug dealers, and even the desire to have new experiences.
“Every drug addict has a unique personal story and must be listened to, understood, loved, and, insofar as possible, healed and purified,” he said.
“We cannot stoop to the injustice of categorizing drug addicts as if they were mere objects or broken machines; each person must be valued and appreciated in his or her dignity in order to enable them to be healed.”
For the cardinal, part of this process means finding effective means of prevention, beginning with education.
“The scenario which we must all face is marked by the loss of the ancient primacy of the family and the school, the emptying of authority of adult figures and the difficulties that arise in terms of parenting,” he said, stressing that this is not time for “protagonism,” but rather for “networks” that are capable of “reactivating social educational synergies by overcoming unnecessary competition, delegation and forms of dereliction.”
“To prevent young people from growing up without care, bred rather than educated, attracted by ‘healing prosthetics,’ as drugs appear to them, all social actors must connect and invest in the shared ground of basic and indispensable education values aiming at the integral formation of the person.”
In this regard, educational aspects “are crucial,” he said, especially during adolescence, when youth are more vulnerable, and at the same time curious and prone to periods of depression and apathy.
Youth look for the “vertigo that makes them feel alive,” he said, quoting Pope Francis. “So, let us give it to them! Let us stimulate all that which helps them transform their dreams into plans, and that can reveal that all the potential they have is a bridge, a passage towards a vocation.”
“Let us propose broad aims to them, great challenges, and let us help them achieve them, to reach their targets. Let us not leave them alone.”
In order to combat the ephemeral happiness of addictions, a “creative love” is needed, Cardinal Turkson said, as well as the presence of adults capable of both teaching and practicing healthy self-care.
“A spiritual vision of existence, projected towards the search for meaning, open to the encounter with others, constitutes the greatest educational legacy that must be handed down between generations, today more than ever,” he said.
By Elise Harris