12 April 2016: Sir Richard’s War, interview with Richard Branson in The Atlantic

An international team headlined by Richard Branson is trying to roll back the global war on drugs. And it’s getting started on the American front.

Vann R. Newkirk II

April 12, 2016


“The war on drugs has done too much damage to too many people already,” Richard Branson announced on his personal website in October 2015. He’d just been responsible for what appeared to be a major breakthrough in global drug policy. In the text of that announcement he leaked a draft of a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime brief that held that international decriminalization of recreational drugs is not only consistent with international law, but perhaps necessary to fulfill human-rights and public-health obligations. If finalized and published, that brief would have been perhaps the strongest international endorsement of drug decriminalization yet.

Branson’s leak was intended to force the UN’s hand and begin the drug legalization crusade that the Global Commission on Drug Policy—which includes Branson, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and a global who’s who of former heads of state and public figures—had embarked on in earnest. The UNODC denied his claims, stating that the draft was neither a final nor a formal declaration of policy. Still, the Global Commission and Branson have used the report as a jumping-off point for the next front in their war on the drug war: America. On Tuesday, before a public event outlining his policy and in advance of  the release of Ending the War on Drugs, a book for which he wrote the introduction, Branson sat down and discussed that fight.

So what’s an English billionaire doing fighting drug policies in the United States? “I think the domestic reform just makes America’s moral stance in lecturing other countries, which they’ve done––not only lectured but sent in forces and sprayed crops and done some pretty horrendous things around the world––now that stance that they’re taking is going to be much more difficult to moralize,” Branson said. He believes that focusing on domestic American reforms would reduce the global policy will to criminalize drugs and would provide strong momentum for pushing a goal that seems well beyond even the outer limits of the American policy imagination. “Decriminalizing and regulating all drugs is going to be the answer,” he proclaimed.

Branson leans heavily on the international example of Portugal as evidence for the efficacy of decriminalization. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs, replacing jail and prison time with fines or rehab appointments for those caught using drugs in public. The results have been dramatic, with drug deaths and addiction both falling by large margins over the years, an example which has convinced Branson and the Global Commission on Drug Policy. “The amount of people taking heroin now has gone down by something like 80 percent,” Branson said.

Although polls consistently show that Americans are now in favor of marijuana legalization, Branson’s quest to replicate the successes of Portugal is almost quixotic given the state of American policy. Even liberal voters have trouble countenancing the legalization of all drugs, and even liberal states have not yet come to a consensus on marijuana policy. But Branson views the different drug doctrines developing—from total marijuana legalization to decriminalization or medicinal management—as useful innovation labs. “Our position is that countries and states should work on different approaches,” he said. As long as states are moving towards treating drugs as a health problem and not a criminal problem, Branson is in favor.

But the complex dynamic between state and national politics does seem to frustrate Branson and the Commission. Presidential candidates and other politicians in national office are less likely than some state officials to support sweeping changes to drug policy. Or, as Branson put it, “politicians can be quite cowardly.” He praised the pro-decriminalization policies of Senator Rand Paul among Republicans in particular, and noted that Hillary Clinton was reserved in a discussion that they’d shared on the topic a few years ago. In all, Branson seemed less-than-sure of his ability to convince national leaders to decriminalize drugs from the outside, but was confident that developments in states and local areas—he had strong praise for Denver, Colorado—could provide the domestic pressure needed.

American drug policy is a prickly thing, and Branson hasn’t quite figured out how to navigate some of its thorns yet. Legalization might continue to bake in some inequalities held over from the epidemic of racialized incarceration, as the masses of people of color who have been imprisoned for drug possession will face major barriers to entry into legal markets. When I asked if there were any ways to provide for equity or if there were any international examples that had confronted that problem, he answered that he hadn’t seen any comparable policies, but noted that illegitimate wealth has become legitimate wealth after American prohibitions before, citing certain bootleggers-turned-ambassadors in our own history. But the problem in today’s prohibition society, even as decriminalization spreads, is that mass incarceration wipes away existing wealth and forms a permanent barrier to further opportunities. As America’s dedication to incarceration and its codependence of race and prison are globally unique, it is tough to envision a comparative international approach that could create a truly equitable drug policy.

There are other complications. The American drug crisis has been wound up in two related drug wars: one its punitive war on illegal drugs and the other its mad scramble against the opioid epidemic. As more and more people suffer from addiction to prescription drugs, they often enter illicit drug markets. Could a decriminalization policy alone solve that problem, or would easy and open access to heroin exacerbate the epidemic? Would reducing the stigma of drugs also roll back America’s significant gains in deaths from driving under the influence? Branson noted that these issues had not been solved yet, but offered that even good policies are “always gonna get casualties.”

It’s easy to see Branson’s entrepreneurial spirit shine through in his policy ideas. He views the war on drugs as an unsuccessful venture that has failed to make positive changes despite years of moralizing. “As a businessman,” he says, “I would have shut down the war on drugs years ago.” But if America’s war on drugs has failed in its stated aims, its incarceration policy has succeeded in locking up entire swathes of the population with ruthless efficiency. Even for a man whose empire reaches to the edges of space and for a commission of some of the most powerful people in the world, the rolling back the American drug war will prove a tall order.