Richard Branson Talks Exclusively To Intervene About The War On Drugs
Nicolay Sorenson, Drug and Alcohol Policy Consultant, interviews Richard Branson on his views on the decriminalisation of drugs, his thoughts on international legislation, his opinions based on personal experience of the struggles faced by addicts he has known and, finally, his ambitions for Virgin to further contribute to the addictive disorder sector.
The decriminalisation of drugs is a hot topic at the moment. At the end of October, The Home Office published a report (signed by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, no less) which was widely reported as concluding there was no international evidence to demonstrate tough enforcement had an impact on levels of drug consumption. Closer reading might suggest the report was more nuanced in its findings but nevertheless it was a significant boon to advocates of decriminalisation. Just a month earlier the Global Commission on Drugs Policy (GCDP) launched, Taking Control: Pathways to Drugs Policies that Work, a report advocating a major overhaul of international drugs policy – calling for greater investment in treatment and for this investment to be funded by savings from law enforcement that would arise from the decriminalisation of all drugs. The GCDP is made up of seven former Presidents, former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan and a number of social commentators and campaigners. However, its chief poster boy and one of its most vocal advocates is Richard Branson. Nicolay Sorensen tackled the billionaire entrepreneur on his motivation for fronting the campaign to liberalise drug laws.
NS: The public health improvement seen in Portugal that followed the change of drugs possession from a criminal to an administrative offence in 2001 is one of the main international examples which people currently site when talking about liberalising drugs laws. Most national surveys suggest that the majority of the population in this country are in favour of current drug laws with only around 1 in 5 advocating decriminalisation. What political and social changes do you think would be needed for the UK to be able to implement the sort of drugs policies which are currently in place in Portugal?
RB: First of all, I think we need to change the way we talk about drug use. Much of the debate still revolves around crime and punishment, which won’t help the thousands of non-violent drug users that are criminalized for possession alone. Drug addiction is, first and foremost, a health issue. People with drug problems need treatment and help, not punishment and marginalization.
Another important point is one of simple economics. Despite trillions of dollars spent around the world, our current drug laws have neither reduced supply
and demand nor curbed drug-related crime. In other words, prohibition and criminalisation have wasted enormous amounts of public funds while achieving absolutely nothing. If the war on drugs were one of my investments, I would have pulled out my money four decades ago.
In my view, shifting to an evidence-based conversation that takes a sober look at what works and what doesn’t will be absolutely essential to win public support for any kind of policy change. At the same time, there is a need to counter the notion that drug policy reform – from decriminalisation to legalisation or regulated sale – will open the floodgates for a dramatic increase in drug use. Evidence from Portugal or the Netherlands just doesn’t support that.
NS: ‘The War on Drugs’ was a term coined by the US media following Richard Nixon’s tough stance on drugs policy in the 70s, this seems to have softened during the current administration. Do you see there being more change in the future and to what extent do you think the elections next May in the UK might offer opportunities to further push the decriminalisation agenda?
RB: The Obama administration has introduced reforms that seemed unthinkable just a few years ago. We still have a long way to go, but it is good to know that those selling regulated and taxed cannabis products in Washington and Colorado no longer have to live with the constant fear of a federal raid.
I think there is now an emerging consensus in the government that the war on drugs has failed entirely and that alternatives to prohibition and incarceration need to be given a chance.
I am heartened to see that at least some across the UK’s political spectrum are willing to give reform a chance. Likewise, public opinion in the UK has been evolving, and it’s refreshing to see that more and more media organizations are coming come out in favour of policy change. It’s time to try a new approach. To be realistic, drug policy won’t decide next year’s election, but how we deal with the issue says a lot about what kind of society we want to be.
NS: The power of having Richard Branson the man and the brand backing an issue such as this is unquestionable, it gives immediate profile and provides a credible voice to champion the cause. Would you ever put your money behind a political party if you thought it could better advance the causes you are passionate about?
RB: I think the US has made great progress in recent years, thanks in part to the far-reaching powers granted to individual states in setting their own policies. That’s where we see the greatest potential for positive change. The federal government has decided not to intervene in these new approaches to cannabis decriminalisation, legalisation and regulated sale, and has also struck a much softer tone on the international stage, particularly with regard to the upcoming review of international drug treaties. As a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, I welcome any effort to shift course away from prohibition and criminalisation. But I won’t move an inch from the position I’ve always taken: I will lend my voice to causes and issues I believe in, but I won’t give financial support to political parties. I feel it’s wrong for business to do that.
NS: To many, the connection between Richard Branson and a desire to see a reform in drugs laws seems quiet surprising (despite your somewhat rock ‘n’ roll past!). What is your personal motivation for backing this campaign? Why drugs reform and not something else like eliminating Malaria or curing Parkinson’s?
RB: I know many people that have struggled with addiction. Some were killed by it, and there is part of me that thinks that they could still be alive if our drug policies didn’t put so much emphasis on prohibition and enforcement. Everyone with a drug problem deserves compassion and treatment, not prison.
Over the years, I have had many conversations with people who were caught in a vicious cycle of criminalisation, often due to minor, non-violent drug offences. Arrested for possession of just a small amount of drugs, they had a criminal record which made it nearly impossible to get their lives back in order. And from there, it just kept getting worse. I don’t think that anyone deserves to be treated that way, especially if they haven’t harmed anyone. On a broader level, I think prohibition and criminalisation have just been a colossal waste of taxpayer money.
I can think of few issues where public policy in many countries stands in such stark contrast to what we know should be done to effectively address the problem. That’s enormously frustrating. Repressive drug policies are causing enormous harm to thousands, if not millions, of people around the world. They prevent many living with HIV/AIDS or Hepatitis from receiving proper medical care. They force heroin users to commit crimes in order to fund their addiction. They strengthen and embolden organised crime, with dire consequences for public safety, rule of law and good governance. And they ruin the lives of those who’ve found themselves in a vicious cycle of criminalisation and stigma simply for possession of small amounts of drugs. These are not abstract problems. I’ve met a good number of people that have to live with these challenges every day. And many have died, needlessly.
I look forward to the day when we recognize that drug use is a health issue and start affording those struggling with addiction the same care, compassion and support that we give those suffering from Malaria or Parkinson’s. The war on drugs cannot be won by trying the same failed policies over and over again.
NS: There has been new impetus in the drugs debate in this country – with people like Russell Brand speaking publically about his own addiction and also advocating a combination of more abstinence based treatment alongside decriminalisation. You must be encouraged that there are more people and more high profile faces who are starting to talk about these issues in a grown up, non histrionic way.
RB: Decriminalisation is the first step to more sensible drug policy. I think many agree that we have to stop treating non-violent drug users as criminals. Drug use is a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue.
I have a lot of respect and admiration for Russell Brand. Through the Give it Up Fund, he is shifting focus and resources to public health interventions intended to help drug users fully recover from their addiction and rebuild their lives. It’s exactly the right approach.
NS: One of the central planks of the decriminalisation argument is that money spent on enforcement could be saved and used on treatment instead. Can governments really be trusted to divert money that is currently spent on criminal justice to public health measures if we follow the decriminalisation route? Personally I am quite sceptical. What stops them from using the savings to repair roads, or simply reduce the deficit, as opposed to helping people be healthier?
RB: I think there are different ways of generating the financial resources needed to tackle addiction. One option is to implement policies that will lead to potentially enormous costs savings. It simply costs much less to treat someone struggling from addiction than to keep them in prison for an extended period of time, not to mention additional costs caused by high recidivism rates. Another option is to create revenues through policy changes, such as the regulated sale of cannabis in Colorado or Washington. Already, tax receipts in Colorado are significant. Those revenues can be used in multiple ways, from addiction treatment to prevention and education programmes or even rehabilitation efforts.
We need better treatment programs that allow people who use drugs to completely recover from their addiction. We know from the experts that treatment is the essential first step. But we also should invest in education and vocational training so that those who manage to overcome their addiction can also rebuild their lives.
NS: It is well publicised that you are going to be a grandfather for the first time next year and it is with this in mind that I wonder what impact decriminalisation might have on the relationship parents have with their children. How should they discuss the issue of drugs if, at eighteen, they can go to a local shop and buy it as they might a can of beer? What sort of discussions did you have with your own children when they were growing up – about drugs and whether to use them or not? And will the proposed changes make it harder to distinguish between addiction and social use?
RB: It’s apples and oranges. No one calling for decriminalisation is encouraging drug use. We are just saying that prohibition hasn’t worked and that drug use is primarily a public health issue that requires a public health response. I am still very concerned about the harm caused by drugs, including tobacco and alcohol. My own advocacy doesn’t change my message to my children (and soon grandchildren): you don’t need drugs to have fun in life.
I think any type of drug use can lead to addiction, but I think there are just so many factors that determine individual pathways to drug addiction. I know plenty of people that have smoked cannabis and continue to do so, while functional perfectly well in their private and professional lives. Others have addictive personalities and struggle with any drug, including alcohol and tobacco.
NS: Finally I just wanted to ask you about how this campaign relates to some of your businesses? Virgin Care is your vehicle for providing NHS and social care services and I was wondering what plans you had for expanding into delivering drug and alcohol treatment? And on a related point how would you react if one of your employees approached you and admitted they had a drugs problem and needed help?
RB: Virgin Care currently provides a wide array of NHS services in the community and in a number of prisons. Within the prisons in Norfolk, Oxfordshire and Surrey, we do provide education and health services around drug rehabilitation. We continue to look for more prison health services.
Obviously, most of our companies have zero tolerance policies when it comes to drug use at work. At the same time, we are committed to helping anyone struggling with addiction. Our people are our most important asset, and if there’s a way in which we can help, we will do so.
Nicolay Sorensen is a freelance policy and communications consultant specialising in the drug and alcohol field. Previously Director of Policy and Communications at Alcohol Concern, he was also the Communications and Policy Manager at Adfam. Nicolay’s clients have included Life Works, Alcohol Health Network and the Centre for Public Scrutiny. Nicolay@ Sorensen-consulting.co.uk