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.
We need to make defending the failed drug war a political liability through this vigorous debate. We will need people to demand change from their political leaders. Interestingly after a global Google debate 93 per cent said the War on Drugs had failed and 90 per cent said they should be treated as a health problem, not a criminal issue. So public opinion is changing.
Do you consider marijuana addiction to be comparable to other addictions, such as alcohol, gambling, gaming or pornography? Do you believe it actually functions as a gateway drug? (from Anika Heinmaa)
Sir Richard Branson: Addiction is a problem no matter what the person gets addicted to. I've seen many people addicted to drugs over the years, and I've seen many of them beat back addiction.
I think teaching our kids about the nature of addiction and the risks of addiction is the best foundation for helping them understand and take responsibility for their own actions and well being. Alcohol and marijuana would probably be similar in terms of being gateways to other things - under the current system, marijuana is a gateway to buying things from the criminal underworld, which is the bigger problem.
I am a wife and mother living in suburbia. Exactly what can I do to bring about the necessary change? (From Holly Richter-White)
Sir Richard Branson: Vote. Talk to your kids, your friends, your school staff. Are your kids learning a about drugs and alcohol so they will be able to take responsibility for themselves? That's where we should all start. Also, learn more about the war on drugs by reading the Global Commission report and checking out the Drug Policy Alliance.
What jurisdiction has developed an effective policy that balances substance abuse and drug control? (From Phil Gibson)
Sir Richard Branson: Switzerland and Portugal have interesting models. The fact is, no model is perfect, but many are better than the "war on drugs." In Portugal, all drug use is legal but the drug trade is still illegal. I've been there and I know:
1. Their drug use rates did not surge;
2. More people are in treatment than ever;
3. They've actually seized more drugs because law enforcement is focused on criminal cartels instead of users;
4. HIV infections have dropped;
5. Drug related break-ins have dropped.
When production and distribution of marijuana become legal, who would you trust to produce it and/or distribute it? (From Shean MacDonald)
Sir Richard Branson: I think the market and regulators would work this out and it will likely be different in different jurisdictions. Whatever shape it takes, it would be safer than the current system of criminal production and distribution.
Why hasn't the global business community - of which you are a leader - done more to lean on governments to end the abomination of drug prohibition?
Sir Richard Branson: The war on drugs is a long-standing set of global policies and I don't think business leaders have seen much value in fighting to end it. I'm fighting it because I think it has a horrible impact on society, but not because of any commercial interest. I think businesses tend to focus on their work and I want to urge more business leaders to focus on doing good along with doing well. That should include taking a stand on issues they find compelling.
How would you respond to criticism that changes in drug policy encourages and condones drug use? (From Niall Birtwell)
Sir Richard Branson: There is literally no evidence that the threat of incarceration deters drug use. And there is no evidence that drug decriminalization causes use to surge. Alcohol is often said to show the risk because so many people use and abuse alcohol. But society celebrates alcohol. We can continue to stigmatize and discourage drug use. Look how cigarette use dropped when it went from being portrayed as cool to being shown as dangerous and disgusting.
I live in Mexico and see the negative effects of the war on drugs. Isn't spending the money on education and treatment of drug related problems more cost effective than continuing the war on drugs? (From George Rudd)
Sir Richard Branson: Yes. And your former President, Vicente Fox, is a powerful supporter of this. Drug treatment and education cost far less and would do much more to help with drug problems than the war on drugs.
Some Latin American leaders have called for legalizing the transport and possession of marijuana. Will they move ahead unilaterally and allow drugs into the U.S.? Or is this call for radical change simply a tactic to draw attention to the dire situation in these countries due to the drug war?
Sir Richard Branson: I'm not sure how they will proceed. At the recent Summit of the Americas, many Latin American leaders stressed the need for change in drug policy. The U.S. is reluctant, but they are engaging in the debate, at least.
What do you think about programs such as Insite [a supervised injection site]in Vancouver? (From Brenda Beauchamp)
Sir Richard Branson: Heroin substitution and heroin therapy for users who simply cannot get clean certainly has benefits - they reduce deaths and the spread of disease and they drastically reduce property crimes by addicts seeking a fix. I think every effort needs to be made to help people in these programs overcome their addiction, however, and live full and productive lives. Drugs absolutely ruin many lives.
You are a transformative leader who openly imbibes. Has consuming THC made you view problems in unconventional ways and/or made you more receptive to others' opinions? In other words, has it contributed to your leadership ability? (From Tom Collins)
Sir Richard Branson: Well, I haven't imbibed anything but a glass of wine now and then for a long time. I never passed judgment on drug use - I just worry for those who have problems with drugs. I know some people who say drugs have been profound and positive for them - but I didn't experience anything so dramatic.
Just curious, if I take a Virgin galactic flight, what, if any, drug laws apply in space? (From Dave Weatherall)
Sir Richard Branson: In space we will all be very literally on a natural high, so I don't think anyone will even think of drugs.