Pope Warns Latin America on Drug Scourge Amid Moves to Legalize

The first pope from Latin America put governments on notice yesterday when he cautioned that the region’s move to legalize drugs won’t stop substance abuse.

Pope Francis during his week-long trip to Rio de Janeiro visited his namesake hospital, St. Francis of Assisi of the Providence of God, to inaugurate a new wing for chemically dependent patients. Crowds stood in the rain to watch the pope as he embraced onlookers, listened to stories of men who overcame substance abuse and delivered an address that called on people to give hope to addicts. He called traffickers “merchants of death.”

“The scourge of drug trafficking, which favors violence and sows pain and death, requires an act of courage from all of society,” the Argentine-born pope said in Portuguese. “It is not by allowing free use of drugs, as discussed in various parts of Latin America, that there will be a reduction in the spread and influence of chemical dependence.”

Leaders of countries including Brazil, Colombia and Mexico where more than 60,000 people have been killed in the past six years in the fight against cartels have called for a new approach in the war on drugs. Uruguay’s President Jose Mujica last year began campaigning to legalize marijuana and make the state its sole supplier.

“We need to confront the problems that are at the root of drug use, promoting greater justice and educating young people,” Pope Francis said.

Drug War

Former presidents of Brazil, Mexico and Colombia --Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Ernesto Zedillo and Cesar Gaviria -- published a report in 2009 saying the U.S.-led drug war had failed and urged President Barack Obama to consider new approaches. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in 2011 called for a discussion on legalization, and before taking office last year Mexico’s Enrique Pena Nieto said he favored debate.

Francis’ visit to the hospital comes at a time when Brazil’s government is trying to meet the demands of protesters to bolster its health care system. President Dilma Rousseff on June 21 pledged to hire thousands of foreign doctors to support the public health system. Pope Francis said the new hospital wing brings to life the parable of the Good Samaritan.

“Thank you to all medical service and auxiliary personnel who strive here,” Francis said. “Your service is precious. Carry it out always with love.”

Rousseff’s “More Doctors” program would send physicians to areas with a shortfall of medical professionals. Nearly 17,300 doctors have enrolled, including more than 15,000 from Brazil, according to the Health Ministry’s press office.

Two Doctors

Brazil has two doctors for every 1,000 citizens, which is less than Mexico, according to a study released in February by Brazil’s federal health council, known as CFM, and data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. In Brazil, 71 percent of the nation’s doctors are in the south and southeast, and 16 of Brazil’s 27 states including Brasilia’s federal district have less than 1.5 doctors per 1,000 residents, according to CFM.

Earlier yesterday, while visiting Brazil’s largest shrine to the Virgin Mary, Francis said he will return to Brazil in 2017. This is his first trip abroad as pontiff.

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