Mega-businessman and seemingly all-around cool dude Sir Richard Branson may have just made the end of the global war on drugs inevitable. More specifically, it seems the United Nations has, unbeknown to us, changed its mind entirely and made the decision to call on governments around the world to decriminalize illegal substances, and the Virgin Group founder, as well as member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, just wants to make sure the organization doesn’t go back on its word.
In his recent blog post on Virgin’s site, where he also publishes the original briefing paper from UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in full (which a portion of the world’s media currently has under embargo), Branson explains the inherent problem with the war on drugs, what’s to be gained by moving forward with the UN’s “health and human rights-based approach to drug policy,” and why he’s the one now telling the world about all of it.
An important excerpt:
In an as-yet unreleased statement circulated to the BBC, myself and others, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which has shaped much of global drug policy for decades, call on governments around the world to decriminalise drug use and possession for personal consumption for all drugs. This is a refreshing shift that could go a long way to finally end the needless criminalisation of millions of drug users around the world. The UNODC document was due to be launched at the International Harm reduction conference in Malaysia yesterday.
The key word “yesterday” is why Branson wants the world to know, because he doesn’t intend to sit back and watch the UN avoid doing “what is right for the people of the world,” which, to him, certainly doesn’t include pulling a “remarkable volte-face at the last possible moment and bow to pressure by not going ahead with this important move.”
He lays out the case.
If you look at the available evidence, UNODC is on the right side of history. In places where decriminalisation has been tried, like Portugal, drug-related deaths were reduced significantly, as were new HIV or Hepatitis infections. Combined with harm reduction programmes, decriminalisation will save lives as people who use drugs will no longer fear arrest and punishment when accessing healthcare services, it will also reduce crime and ease the burden on prison systems and law enforcement agencies.
As the UN General Assembly gears up for the first drug debate in 18 years next April, I hope this groundbreaking news will empower and embolden governments everywhere, including the UK, to do the right thing and consider a different course in drug policy. In the face of overwhelming evidence, UN expert opinion, and international human rights law, it’s not decriminalisation that “sends the wrong message” - it’s the continued refusal to engage, review or discuss reform.
However, as can often be the case with announcements of this nature, UNODC largely denied Branson’s claim hours after his write-up, with a spokesperson explaining, “The briefing paper on decriminalization mentioned in many of today’s media reports, and intended for dissemination and discussion at a conference in Kuala Lumpur, is neither a final nor formal document…and cannot be read as a statement of UNODC policy.”
The spokesperson went further.
“It remains under review and UNODC regrets that, on this occasion, there has been an unfortunate misunderstanding about the nature and intent of this briefing paper. UNODC emphatically denies reports that there has been pressure on UNODC to withdraw the document. But it is not possible to withdraw what is not yet ready.”
Given Branson’s personality, and the fact that he often looks like a lion who’s magically morphed into human form, his tenacity doesn’t surprise me. Regardless if Branson was right in his assumption and UNODC is backtracking or it is indeed simply an “unfortunate misunderstanding,” Branson’s put the idea out there, along with an official document up for interpretation. That’s a talking point now.
UNODC’s two-page statement, now published on Virgin by Branson, can be read in full below.