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Sir Richard Branson in Toronto on March 6, 2012. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Sir Richard Branson in Toronto on March 6, 2012. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Richard Branson answers reader questions on the drug war Add to ...

Sir Richard Branson, the Virgin Group Founder, and a commissioner with the Global Commission on Drug Policy, answers Globe and Mail readers' questions about why the war on drugs has failed.

The commission released a ground-breaking report last June which found that prohibition serves only to empower violent criminal cartels and does not deter drug users in any way.

In response to readers' queries, Mr. Branson explores how global drug policy can be modernized and reformed.

How would you get the politicians to legalize soft drugs and sell these drugs in licensed stores? (From David Coombes)

Sir Richard Branson: The first thing I and the Global Commission recommend is to stop criminal penalties for people who use drugs but do no harm to others. Legalization and regulation also need to be explored through trying different policies. But the first step is to have a serious debate among politicians about the failures of the drug war. A focus on education and treatment will be much better for society than locking people up for drug use.

Who benefits from a continued war on drugs?

Sir Richard Branson: The cartels making hundreds of billions of dollars a year benefit the most. They are able to establish monopolies on products that have high demand, and they are flourishing. After this, especially in the United States, there is a major private prison industry that depends on drug convictions - each prisoner costs over $40K a year, while treatment is under $10K.

Sir Richard, I have two felony drug charges on my record and am unemployed. If the war on drugs were to end, should there be programs to help people like me get a job? I am educated but my record keeps me from gaining employment. (From Patrick Clapp)

Sir Richard Branson: I feel for you, Patrick. One of the most terrible impacts of the drug war is that people who could be productive members of society are instead made into drains on society.

A focus on rehabilitation for those who need it and reintegration into society would be better for all. In the U.S., black men are essentially being disenfranchised by this - felons can't vote for the most part and blacks are 10 times more likely than whites to go to jail for drugs (even though they use and sell drugs at the same rate as whites).

What standard(s) should we use to determine what substances are legal? (addiction level; physical and mental harm to user; current level of consumption)? Who decides? (Doctors; sociologists; psychologists; religious scholars; historians?) (From David Thomas Devine)

Sir Richard Branson: Right now, we have no logic behind the regulation of drugs. The Lancet has done some work on this and shown that the scheduling of drugs is not tied to science. Highly addictive and very dangerous drugs are sometimes illegal -- like heroin and cocaine -- and sometimes freely available like alcohol and cigarettes.

Far less dangerous drugs like marijuana are illegal. The whole system for evaluating drugs and scheduling them needs to be overhauled with the basis being in science. I think the medical impact and the affect on behavior should be accounted for in evaluating drugs.

But at the end of the day, making substances "illegal" has not stopped their use - and regulating substances has not stopped their abuse. Real information about the dangers of drugs paired with treatment for those who end up suffering addiction and prison only for those who harm others would help.

Why are governments so resistant to the idea of legalization of soft drugs? Is it fear of voter disapproval/inertia? (From Richard Webb)

Sir Richard Branson: I think it has long been believed that being "tough on crime" requires a "war on drugs," and no politician wants to seem soft on crime. Even though the current policy causes more crime and more violence, the political risks are just too high.

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