We Must End the War on Drugs by Richard Branson

Published in Der Zeit on July 6, 2016

Sir Richard Branson, the entrepreneur and advocate for social causes, is a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. The panel wants to bring about informed, science-based discussions about humane and effective ways to reduce the harm caused by drugs to people and societies. Branson is also founder of the Virgin Group. Its international branches include business areas in entertainment, telecommunications, aviation and space travel.

Attempts to eliminate drugs have cost thousands of lives. It’s time for us to rethink the issue. The world must learn to live with drugs, but also to better control them.

Sir Richard Branson advocates for reforms to reduce the harm caused by drugs to people and societies.
Sir Richard Branson advocates for reforms to reduce the harm caused by drugs to people and societies. © Andy Wong/Getty Images

Few of us will forget the histrionics of the anti-drug campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s. An egg sizzling in a frying pan became the enduring visual of “your brain on drugs”, while Nancy Reagan warned young people everywhere to “just say no”. The underlying vision was that of a drug-free world, where abstinence of all types would usher in a new era of virtue and morality. All of this was buttressed by the not-quite-so-virtuous and excessively brutal “war on drugs”, an ever-expanding global operation to eliminate the supply of illegal drugs, to destroy global drug trafficking networks, and to relentlessly criminalize people who use drugs.

Today, after billions of dollars spent, millions of people thrown in jail, and hundreds of thousands killed, we know that this war on drugs has been an epic failure, a colossal waste of capital, resources and lives. Its ripple effects are felt the world over – in the communities ravaged by drug-related violence in Latin and Central America; in the overcrowded US prisons filled with scores of young men and women who were arrested and sentenced for mere drug possession; and even in the streets of Crimean cities, where dozens died after Russia promptly ended Ukraine’s successful methadone programme upon annexing the peninsula.

The War on Drugs Has always Been a War on People

On balance, this global rush to arms has reduced neither supply nor demand for illegal drugs, while exacerbating violence and untold human suffering and fuelling a vast criminal industry raking in an estimated $320 billion annually.

When US President Richard Nixon declared illegal drugs “public enemy number one” in 1971, few had a clear idea what was really driving the pursuit of another war just as the US was beginning to scale back its ill-fated effort in Vietnam. Part of the reason is the UN. As early as 1961, its Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs had first laid down the concept that drugs – and therefore the people who used, produced or sold them – constituted a threat to humankind. But in 1994, the late John Erlichman, one of Nixon’s domestic policy advisors, shed some light on the President’s true targets: anti-war protesters and the black community: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” The broader thrust of those policies hasn’t changed greatly since, it appears.

The war on drugs has always been a war on people, disproportionately and excessively targeting minorities, the poor, and the disenfranchised. In the US, black Americans represent only 12 percent of all drug users, but 38 percent of people arrested for drug offences. They are sent to prison at 10 times the rate of white Americans. Similarly, black people in the UK are six times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs than white people, even though drug use is far higher among the country’s white population.

Take the Drug Markets Back from Criminal Networks

Contrary to the drug warriors’ claims, drug prohibition has also increased the health risks associated with all drug use. Making drugs illegal has driven the market towards riskier, more potent (and therefore more profitable) products, led to the use of contaminated substances of unknown strength, encouraged high-risk using behaviours, and pushed consumption into unsafe environments.

It’s high time that we stop pretending we have any control over drugs. The only way to wrest back control is to end the drug war, take the markets back from criminal networks and put governments in charge, so that drug production, supply and use can be regulated via doctors, pharmacists and licensed retailers. The more dangerous a drug is, the more important it is that it be properly controlled by the government. Only then can there be a role for legitimate business, working as they do now within the legal medicine industry, following safe, accountable systems under the rule of law.

There is proof already that such ways of working are viable and some leaders have already shown the vision and the courage needed to forge ahead. In 2013, Uruguay took matters into its own hands and decided to create a regulated cannabis market. In the US, four states have done the same, with more planning to follow suit. In October 2015, Canada’s new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to legalise and regulate cannabis, a promise that is now swiftly moving towards implementation.