Thoughts on the global drugs crisis

By Richard Branson

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As the COVID pandemic continues to take its toll in many parts of the world, another devastating global health crisis has been on the rise for years, killing people in unprecedented numbers.

I am talking about the opioid crisis, which has been inextricably linked to the failed war on drugs, famously declared by US President Richard Nixon in 1971. Fifty years of misguided attempts by governments to battle supply of and demand for illicit drugs out of existence through tough law enforcement, military force and harsh sentences have failed in every conceivable way.

A few weeks ago, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the latest drug fatality figures for the US. The numbers are devastating.

In 2020, more than 93,000 Americans died of drug-related deaths, most of them caused by some form of opioid. The number is almost too high to grasp, and so it’s helpful to put it in perspective: roughly 58,000 Americans died in the decade or so of active US military involvement in Vietnam.

No other non-natural cause of death – neither gun violence, nor traffic fatalities – comes anywhere close to this dramatic annual toll which cuts across so many demographics. It’s an all-American crisis, killing rich and poor, Black and white alike. As my friend Ethan Nadelmann once put it, it really is “a crisis of pain”, one that has been exacerbated by the social and economic impacts of COVID-19. No amount of policing and law enforcement will change that.

Things are not looking much better in other parts of the world. Over the past days, newly released drug death figures from the UK paint a similarly bleak picture, as drug-related deaths in England, Wales and Scotland have hit their highest levels since systematic recording of drug fatalities began in the 1990s. There has also been a huge rise in stimulant-related deaths in both the US and the UK, showing the complexity of the challenge.

It’s time to change course on drug policy. We need new thinking and innovation.

For more than a decade now, I have been proud to be a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a group of global leaders from politics, business and civil society advocating for a new and more humane approach to drugs. Against the backdrop of this year’s staggering numbers, it’s about time that everyone joins the effort to end the war on drugs for good. And we all know what to do. In fact, we have known for years which approaches work, and the growing body of evidence from pioneering countries like Portugal (where personal possession and use of drugs were decriminalised with great success in 2001) and others shows the way.

Time and again, my fellow commissioners and I have argued that drug use should never be treated as a crime, that those trapped in addiction should be given support, not punishment. Reducing harm through improved access to proven interventions, from medically supervised drug consumption rooms to opioid substitution treatment or heroin assisted treatment saves lives, as has been demonstrated countless times. This is where public funding should be directed.

At the same time, governments should stop their futile effort to battle the global illicit trade with force and start considering decriminalisation of drugs or even regulated markets for certain drugs. It’s the only way to wrestle control of this multibillion-dollar market from the criminal organisations that are firmly controlling it.

I know these are not necessarily popular measures, but the inconvenient truth is this: drugs are all around us, and they will continue to be around us. The question is whether we are finally willing to take control through bold and evidence-based policy.

Head over to some of the organisations that are fighting to end the war on drugs:


Drug Policy Alliance