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CNS PHOTO | JEFFERY ARGUEDAS, EPA

In this 2014 file photo, a drug addict smokes drugs in the city of San Jose, Costa Rica.

April 18, 2016
EZRA FIESER
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

Heroin and painkillers plague the streets of North American cities and towns. Mexican drug cartels have turned swaths of that country into battle zones. In South Africa, young people are getting hooked on a drug made from a medication meant to fight HIV.

Around the globe, a worldwide addiction to illicit drugs is fueling violence, human trafficking, a proliferation of guns, organized crime and terrorism, the Vatican has said.

Now, as the UN General Assembly prepares to meet April 19-21 for a special session on the issue, the Church is calling on governments and civil society groups to address a problem that has existed for decades but continues to change and pose new threats.

"From poor rural workers in war-torn zones of production to affluent metropolitan end-users, the illicit trade in drugs is no respecter of national boundaries or of socioeconomic status," Msgr. Janusz Urbanczyk, Vatican observer to UN agencies in Vienna, wrote in the statement.

Effective solutions must be focused both in the areas where the drugs are produced and in dealing with the underlying reasons people abuse drugs, Urbanczyk said.

The Vatican position puts it at the centre of a tense policy that will play out at the highest levels of the United Nations.

On one side, governments like Guatemala, Colombia and Mexico, which requested the UN session, are pushing for new policies, such as improved treatment, providing assistance to grow different crops for farmers who cultivate illicit drugs and alternatives to incarceration for drug users.

On the other side, powerful UN members, including China, Russia and Egypt, remain in favour of the prohibitionist war on drugs.

"The Catholic Church is clearly calling for a public health approach, which is similar to the position the U.S. government has taken," said Coletta Youngers, a former Church worker in Latin America.

On March 29, U.S. President Barack Obama reiterated that his administration wants more treatment options.

"The most important thing to do is reduce demand. And the only way to do that is to provide treatment - to see it as public health problem and not a criminal problem," Obama said.

Meanwhile, drug addiction and

violence related to drug trafficking is

affecting nearly every area of the world.

Mexico launched a crackdown on drug cartels and organized crime 10 years ago but has been plagued by violence ever since. More than 100,000 people are dead and 20,000 are missing.

Barrio 18 gang members accused of killing a bus driver in San Salvador, El Salvador are presented to the media last July.

CNS PHOTO | OSCAR RIVERA, EPA

Barrio 18 gang members accused of killing a bus driver in San Salvador, El Salvador are presented to the media last July.

Criminal groups have gotten smaller as their leaders are captured or killed, and such groups subsequently have taken up activities such as extortion and kidnapping.

The groups also get into small-scale drug dealing, another source of violence as they dispute territories.

Father Robert Coogan, prison chaplain in the city of Saltillo in northeastern Mexico, recalls having a stream of new inmates, previously involved in small-time drug dealing, arrive in the late 2000s with stories of the police raiding their homes and planting evidence.

SELF-DESTRUCTIVE

Drug use increased in Mexico at around the same time, he said. Analysts attribute that to cartels paying their underlings in drugs to be resold.

"I wish people would look more at the society that makes people want to do drugs," Coogan said. "Rather than try to prohibit from doing certain things, I would want a society where people wouldn't feel the urge to do these self-destructive things."

Governments and civil society groups are grappling with how to deal with the scourge. In Afghanistan, poppy, the heroin opium precursor, has become a cash crop for the Taliban. In Lake Orion, Mich., Robert Koval runs Guest House, a residential rehabilitation facility.

RAMPANT PROBLEM

"Attention to the issue has spiked in recent years because there's this question on how to get your arms around a problem that is so rampant," said Koval, the facility's president and CEO. Guest House treats about 70 people a year.

Koval said the problem has morphed in recent years as more people have become addicted to opioids, including prescription painkillers.

The result has been an epidemic of drug overdoses. In 2014, more than 28,600 deaths were caused by opioid overdoses, triple the number from 2000, says the Centres for Disease Control.

Those being treated are also becoming younger, Koval said. "It's what you see in the general population, with drug abuse increasing among young adults."

Drug addiction among young adults is a problem Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban sees across South Africa, where HIV patients are being robbed of their medications, which are used to make an addictive drug called whoonga.

BROKEN PEOPLE

"The brokenness of the people I saw recently in an outreach clinic and the fact that most of them were teenagers or in their 20s hit me hard,'' Napier said of a trip to the coastal city of Durban.

The Vatican's call to improve health care services would help in places like Kenya, where there are too few practitioners, particularly in rural areas, said Bishop Emanuel Barbara of Malindi.

"Kenyans have become obsessive about taking drugs as the only way to heal," he said. That's a problem because medication banned in other countries is available in Kenya and many "fake drugs" can be found on drugstore shelves.

DECRIMINALIZATION

While countries such as Portugal and the Netherlands long ago decriminalized drug use, the debate has only more recently come to the Americas.

When the Mexican Supreme Court ruled in November in favour of four petitioners seeking an injunction to grow and consume marijuana for recreational reasons, Catholic leaders condemned the decision as putting Mexico on the path to legalization.

An editorial in the Archdiocese of Mexico's weekly magazine said it would move the country "toward individual destruction."

DRUG USE EQUALS DEATH

Pope Francis has taken a hardline approach against any forms of drug legalization, including recreational drugs.

"Drug addiction is an evil, and with evil there can be no yielding or compromise," he said at the International Drug Enforcement Conference in Rome in 2014.

In the pope's home country, Argentina, Father Jose Maria di Paola, who works with drug addicts in the shanties of Buenos Aires, said drug legalization would do further harm to the poor.

"Why is this our position on legalization? Because we live in marginal and poor environments impacted by drugs. In these places, it's synonymous with death. It has nothing to do with recreation," he said in a 2015 interview.