The Argentine-born pontiff, who has championed the cause of the poor and vulnerable, drew a line against drugs as he met crack addicts and inaugurated a rehab ward at a Rio de Janeiro hospital run by Franciscan monks.

"The scourge of drug trafficking, which favors violence and sows the seeds of suffering and death, requires of society as a whole an act of courage," Francis said as rain fell on the Saint Francis hospital.

"A reduction in the spread and influence of drug addiction will not be achieved by a liberalization of drug use, as is currently being proposed in various parts of Latin America," he said on the third day of his weeklong trip to Brazil for a Catholic youth festival.

Hours earlier, Latin America's first pope urged Catholics to reject the ephemeral idols of money, power and success as he led mass at a revered shrine in neighboring Sao Paulo state.

Drug violence has killed more than 70,000 people in Mexico alone since 2006 while narco trafficking continues unabated across the region, fueling calls for a rethink of the US-backed war on drugs.

Guatemala's president has called for the legalization of drugs, a vision shared by ex-presidents in Brazil, Mexico and Colombia but opposed by the US and Mexican governments. Uruguayan President Jose Mujica has proposed legalizing marijuana in his country. But the pope said society must fight the underlying problems of drug use by "promoting greater justice, educating young people in the values that build up life in society, accompanying those in difficulty and giving them hope for the future."

The 76-year-old pope visited the hospital after flying back from a mass at the Shrine of Our Lady Aparecida in Sao Paulo state, where more than 200,000 people braved the cold rain to greet him.

After entering the basilica, the visibly moved pope held a statue of the dark-skinned Virgin of Aparecida, the country's patroness whom Francis himself reveres. "It is true that nowadays, to some extent, everyone, including our young people, feels attracted by the many idols which take the place of God and appear to offer hope: money, success, power, pleasure," he said in his homily.

"Often a growing sense of loneliness and emptiness in the hearts of many people leads them to seek satisfaction in these ephemeral idols." The pope is seeking to re-energize his flock during his first overseas trip since his election earlier this year.


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