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Pope Francis slams drug legalization, but U.S. Catholics are mixed — at least on pot

Pope Francis greets the crowd during his general audience at St Peter’s Square on June 11 in Vatican City. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty)

Pope Francis on Friday condemned the legalization of drugs for recreational use as a failed policy, but Catholics in the United States have complicated views on the subject — at least as it relates to marijuana.

Francis dismissed the policies — like the ones in Colorado and Washington — as naive and ineffective, in remarks to the heads of world anti-drug agencies at the 31st International Drug Enforcement Conference in Rome.

Let me state this in the clearest terms possible: the problem of drug use is not solved with drugs! Drug addiction is an evil, and with evil there can be no yielding or compromise,” Francis said, according to an English translation“… No to every type of drug use. It is as simple as that. No to any kind of drug use.”

Despite his official and absolute stance, American Catholics have mixed attitudes on drug use, especially marijuana. About 40 percent of Catholics favored forms of legalization in a January Washington Post/ABC News poll and an April 2013 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute. Both also found age correlated with views, with substantial declines in support among respondents over age 65 regardless of religious affiliation. (Francis is 77 years old.)

Catholics also have mixed views on the dangers of marijuana use. About one in three say new laws legalizing marijuana are a sign of the nation’s moral decline, according to the PRRI poll. Catholics are split on the morality of the using the drug itself, with 46 percent saying it’s morally acceptable and 41 percent saying it’s wrong. (Just about one in three say they have tried marijuana, making Catholics the only religious group with a significantly lower rate than the general public.) More than half of all Catholics — 55 percent — disagreed with the idea that it is a gateway drug in an April 2013 Pew Research poll.

They also represent a huge share of the national population and of the populations of states where recreational or medical marijuana is allowed. About 24 percent of Americans are Catholic, according to Pew Research Center estimates. The group also accounts for about 30 percent of the population of all states that allow medical marijuana, according to an analysis of 2007 Pew state religious breakdowns as applied to current Census population numbers.

In Washington and Colorado, the two states that allow recreational use of the drug, slightly more than one in every six people are Catholic.

Niraj Chokshi is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.

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