Richard Branson is Pushing for Drug Decriminalization

October 19th 2015

Businessman and investor Richard Branson says that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime is prepared to release a report calling for the decriminalization of all drug use and possession. In a statement posted on the Virgin Group website, the founder breaks an embargo and discloses details of the report, which was supposed to be released at an international harm reduction conference in Malaysia on Sunday.

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Branson attached the full UNDOC brief to the bottom of his statement, defiantly objecting to what he described as "pressure" from "at least one government" to derail the report's release.

"This is a refreshing shift that could go a long way to finally end the needless criminalization of millions of drug users around the world," Branson, an outspoken drug reform advocate, wrote. "Together with countless other tireless advocates, I've for years argued that we should treat drug use as a health issue, not as a crime. While the vast majority of recreational drug users never experience any problems, people who struggle with drug addiction deserve access to treatment, not a prison cell."

Citing previous reports about the harmfulness of drug criminalization, Branson argues that the UNDOC is on the "right side of history," by proposing international decriminalization legislation. He says that putting drug users behind bars is an ineffective law enforcement approach that strains government resources and punishes those who need health services.

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According to the Drug Policy Alliance, more than 1.6 million people are arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated for drug law violations each year. The U.S. alone houses approximately 25 percent of the world's prisoners despite having only five percent of the world's population.

Drug reform

The UNDOC proposal would come just over a year after the Global Commission on Drug Policy released its own report on the need for comprehensive drug reform. Branson and former Secretary General of the UN Kofi Annan are members of the commission and were involved in presenting the report to a UN panel, which included UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson "to discuss the report's recommendations," the Huffington Post reported.

Branson has suggested that the delay in the report's release is connected to political pressure from "at least one government," and so he chose to break the media embargo that was set on the document.

"[A]s I'm writing this I am hearing that at least one government is putting an inordinate amount of pressure on the UNODC. Let us hope the UNODC, a global organization that is part of the UN and supposed to do what is right for the people of the world, does not do a remarkable volte-face at the last possible moment and bow to pressure by not going ahead with this important move. The war on drugs has done too much damage to too many people already."

The UNDOC report comes several months ahead of an UN General Assembly drug debate scheduled for April 2016, and Branson hopes that it will "empower and embolden governments everywhere... to do the right thing and consider a different course in drug policy."

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