top of page

Should Soft Drugs be Legalized

Public opinion has been recently shocked by some proposals presented in various countries that are aimed at legislation to control the use of drugs, but also to facilitate access to so-called “soft” drugs. The Pontifical Council for the Family was questioned on the matter by families and numerous teachers and institutions that work with young people. After consulting experts from many counties and the heads of various therapeutic communities, this dicastery published the following reflections in Italian on January 17, 1997.

1. Drug dependence is a phenomenon that is spreading. It poses serious psychological, social, spiritual and moral problems. In this note we wish to face the dilemma mainly from the point of view of the individual and his family, because we must not forget that “the human person, unique and unrepeatable, with his or her own interior life and specific personality, is really at the center of the problem of drug dependence.”[1]

2.  In the short space of a few decades drug dependence has passed from a relatively limited use, confined to a well-off and self-indulgent social class, to a mass phenomenon affecting young people especially, destroying lives, cutting short much promise, and which so far no country has succeeded in reducing or even controlling. “The majority of drug-users are young and the age of initial drug use is constantly being lowered.”[2] Children and adolescents trivialize the use of drugs even at school in the sight of their powerless teachers. It is the very future of our society that is threatened by drug abuse. This is why young people are our main concern—adolescents and young adults—because today they are the first victims of drugs.

3. When arguments are presented for or against the legalization of “soft” drugs, simplifications and generalizations must be avoided, and especially the politicization of an issue that is profoundly human and ethical. Some hold that the moderate use of certain substances, classified as “drugs,” would lead neither to biochemical dependence nor to physical side effects. Others say it would be better to know and assist drug addicts rather than leave them in a state of illegality, in order to help them and to protect society. These are the arguments advanced in favor of legalized drugs.

4. Science and technology have always sought to take advantage of chemicals in order to cure pathologies, to improve conditions of life and to increase the pleasure of being together. Users have observed that some of these substances produce sensations that are either pleasant, euphoric, tranquilizing, sedative, stimulating or hallucinogenic. These “drugs” at the same time cause a loss of concentration and an altered sense of reality. Consumption of these substances initially leads to isolation and then to dependence, and the intake of increasingly stronger products. In some cases, the product creates such a dependence that the user lives only to procure it.

5. Effects vary from one drug to another, without being able to distinguish, at the pharmacological level, between the categories of “soft drugs” and “hard drugs.” It is the quantity consumed, the way of absorption and eventual side-effects that are the decisive factors.[3] Moreover, every day new drugs arrive on the market, bringing new effects and new questions. Lastly, the problem of drug dependence should rightly be extended to include many substances (tranquilizers, sedatives, anti-depressants, stimulants) that are not considered “drugs,” including tobacco and alcohol.[4] In fact the problem is posed in terms different from those which are merely biochemical.

6. It is not drugs that are in question, but the human, psychological and existential issues implicit in this kind of behavior. All too often we do not want to understand these issues and forget that it is not the product that creates the addiction, but the person who feels the need for it. Products may differ but the basic reasons remain the same. Thus the distinction between “hard drugs” and “soft drugs” is irrelevant.

7. The use of drugs is symptomatic of a profound “malaise.” As the Pontifical Council for the Family says: “Drugs in fact do not enter into a person’s life like a bolt of lightning out of the blue, but like a seedling that takes root in a well-prepared soil.”[5] Behind these phenomena is the individual’s cry for help as he is left alone with his life; there is a desire not only to be recognized and appreciated, but also to be loved. Therefore, we must first discover the cause of the phenomenon if we want to deal effectively with the personal and social consequences resulting from the use of drugs.

8. The problem, in fact, is not in drug abuse itself, but in the sickness of spirit that leads to it, as Pope John Paul II recalls: “A correspondence has to be recognized between the deadly pathology caused by drug abuse and a pathology of the spirit, which leads a person to flee from self and to seek illusory pleasures, in an escape from reality, to the point that the meaning of personal existence is totally lost.”[6]

9. In drug dependence among the young, these human problems are brought to the fore. The young person tempted by drugs has a fragile, immature and disorganized personality and this relates directly to the upbringing he did not receive. For many years, most specialists in the behavioral sciences have been saying that society is abandoning young people, that they are not cared for and respected and that their environment does not provide them with all the social, cultural and religious elements needed to develop their personalities.

10. We live in a world where the child is left to his own devices too early. We hope to awaken his freedom and make him independent while, at the same time, he becomes fragile in the long term because he is deprived of the support of adults and of society, which he needs to mature. Lacking this basic support, many young people reach adolescence without any real interior organization or structure. Faced with a world that seems empty and a future they think limited, their reaction is to try to feel alive, despite everything. They seek support and therefore cultivate various relationships of dependence on others, on various substances and on dangerous behavior.

11. These young people’s parents are legitimately worried and often look for help when they are faced with what seems to them a serious problem which, at the very least, calls into question their children’s psychic, ethical and spiritual maturation. A child, like an adolescent, has not developed a sense of limits, especially in a world where it is claimed that everything is possible and that everyone can do as he likes. Parents try to teach their children what can and cannot be done, what is right and what is wrong. They often have the impression that their educational approach is undermined and even disparaged by the ideas and images current in society.

12. As a result, parents often feel that they are losers with their children, won over by what unfortunately seems stronger than they in the marketplace. They are anxious because they do not feel that society supports them. They do not want their children to take drugs, while at the same time, others are working to legalize the sale and use of products that encourage drug dependence.

13. Faced with this escalation of arguments in favor of their legalization, we should ask ourselves the real questions. There have been numerous attempts in this direction and they have all failed. Do we really know why the free circulation should be legalized? Do we still want to fight against drugs, or have we given up? Are the easy way and demagogy taking the upper hand, or is a serious effort being made at prevention? Is it acceptable to create a subclass of human beings who life at a subhuman level, as unfortunately can be seen in cities where drugs are readily sold? Has sufficient consideration been given to what experts have been saying for years, that drug dependence is not a question of drugs but of what leads the individual to take them? Have we forgotten that to live, everyone must be able to answer certain essential questions about life? Is it not more likely that legalizing the product will serve to strengthen this oversight?

14. Because drug dependence among young people is due to the weakness of our educational system, it is not apparent how the legalization of these substances promotes greater control of them by young people and, above all, how could it help them understand what they are seeking through these substances.

15. The legalization of drugs implies the risk of causing the opposite effect to that sought. In fact, it is easy to admit that what is legal is what is normal and therefore moral. Through the legalization of drugs, it is not the product that is thereby legalized, but rather the reasons leading to the consumption of this product that are justified. Now, no one will deny that drug use is an evil. Whether drugs are illegally purchased or distributed by the State, they are always harmful to man.

16. On the other hand, should the law recognize this behavior as normal, one might wonder how the public authorities would deal with having to educate and care for persons as a result of the risks this legalization would involve. We are faced with a further contradiction of the modern world, which trivializes a phenomenon and then attempts to deal with its negative consequences.

17. The social repercussions of this legalization must also be considered. Will the spread of crime and illnesses linked to dependence as well as the increase in traffic accidents resulting from easy access to drugs be courageously examined? Are we ready to entrust ourselves professionally to the drug dependent? Must we guarantee them job security? Furthermore, does the State really have the financial means and personnel for dealing with the growth of health problems that the legalization of drugs would inevitably entail?

18. In view of these problems, the primary duty of the State is to safeguard the common good. This requires it to protect the rights, stability and unity of the family. By destroying a young person, drugs destroy the family, both the family of the present and that of the future. Should this vital and primordial cell of society be threatened, society as a whole will suffer. On the other hand, as the Pontifical Council for the Family stresses, drug dependence is one of the reasons for the weakening of the family and the breakup of homes:[7] “The experience of those who work with special competence in the world of drug dependence… unanimously confirms that the Christian model” of the family based on “authentic love: the unique, faithful, and indissoluble love of spouses remains the primary point of reference upon which to insist in any action for the prevention, treatment and recovery of the vitality of the individual.”[8]

19. Thus in ensuring the common good, the State also has the task of watching over the citizens’ well-being. The State’s assistance to its citizens must correspond to the principle of impartiality and subsidiarity: that is, it must first protect the weakest and poorest of society’s members, despite themselves. It cannot therefore relinquish its duty to protect those who have not yet reach maturity and are potential victims of drug abuse. Furthermore, if the State adopts or maintains a consistent and courageous stance on drugs, combating them regardless of their type, this attitude will at the same time help in the struggle against alcohol and tobacco abuse.

20. The Church wishes to draw attention to the repercussions of this phenomenon. She emphasizes the fact that, in the event of the legalization of the sale and use of products encouraging drug dependence, the future of individuals is at stake. The lives of some will be diminished, that is, marred, while others, perhaps without falling into real dependence, will waste their youth without fully developing their potential. The behavior that leads to drug dependence has no chance of being corrected if the products that encourage this behavior are sold without restriction.

21. On the contrary, as the Holy Father said:[9] “The possibility of recuperation and redemption from the heavy slavery” of drugs with methods based on acceptance, respect, education in freedom and love “has been proved concretely, and it is significant that this has taken place with methods which strictly exclude any granting of drugs, legal or illegal” whether these are drugs themselves or substitutes. Pope John Paul II added: “Drug abuse cannot be conquered with drugs.”

22. Various attitudes are possible toward the problem of drug abuse and they can all be justified. However, rather than a policy of simple “limitation” or "reduction” of the damage, accepting as a fact of civilization that part of the population uses drugs and is heading for destruction, would it not be preferable to opt for a policy of true prevention, aimed at building (or rebuilding) a “culture of life” in this “marginalization” of our civilization of efficiency?


[1] Pontifical Council for the Family, From Despair to Hope: Family and Drug Addiction, 1992, Ia, (Liberia Editrice Vaticana, p. 6). Enchiridion 1714.

[2] Ibid. Enchiridion 1715.

[3] Cf. Comite consultatif national d’ethique pour les sciences de la vie et de la sante, Paris (Avis n. 43, Nov. 23, 1994, Rapport sur les toxicomanies, p. 13).

[4] The difference between drug addiction and alcoholism was emphasized in these terms by the Holy Father John Paul II: “It is true that there is a distinct difference between the use of drugs and the use of alcohol: while a moderate use of the latter as a drink does not offend moral principles, only its abuse can be condemned; instead, the use of drugs is always unlawful because it implies an unjustified and unreasonable renunciation of thinking, desiring and acting as a free person” (Dolentium Hominum, 19, VII, 1992, n. 1).

[5] Pontifical Council for the Family, op. cit., p. 8. Enchiridion 1718.

[6]  Message of the Holy Father to Dr. Giorgio Giacomella, Undersecretary General, Executive Director of the United Nations International Drug Control Program, on the occasion of the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking (June 15, 1996, L’Osservatore  Romano, June 26, 1996, p. 4).

[7] “The drug user frequently comes from a family which does not know how to react to stress because it is unstable, incomplete or divided” (Pontifical Council for the Family, op. cit., IIIb). Enchiridion 1723.

[8] Ibid. Enchiridion 1759.

[9] Address to the participants in the Eight World Congress of Therapeutic Communities, Castel Gandolfo, Sept. 7, 1984, L’Osservatore  Romano English edition, Sept. 24, 1984, nn. 3, 6, pp. 10,11.

Documents on Drugs

Church: Drugs and Drug Addiction, Chapter 1

From Despair to Hope

Should Soft Drugs be Legalized

Excerpts from Church Documents

Addresses of Pope John Paul II

Addresses of Pope Francis

Messages of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development

Final Statement

The Miraculous Draft of Fishes by Raphael

Wikimedia Commons

bottom of page