Space Mogul Richard Branson Defends Our Rights to Explore Outer Space and Inner Space


In what should not have been a surprise to anyone who remembers the entire Virgin corporate empire was built on Mike Oldfield's "wake me when the drugs wear off" masterpiece Tubular Bells, supermogul Richard Branson shows that he's both so rich and so smart by explaining to the world why the drug war should end after studying the Portuguese model:

Ten years ago the Portuguese Government responded to widespread public concern over drugs by rejecting a "war on drugs" approach and instead decriminalized drug possession and use…

Now with a decade of experience Portugal provides a valuable case study of how decriminalization coupled with evidence-based strategies can reduce drug consumption, dependence, recidivism and HIV infection and create safer communities for all. 

I will set out clearly what I learned from my visit to Portugal and would urge other countries to study this:

In 2001 Portugal became the first European country to officially abolish all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines. 

Jail time was replaced with offer of therapy. (The argument was that the fear of prison drives addicts underground and that incarceration is much more expensive than treatment).

Under Portugal's new regime, people found guilty of possessing small amounts of drugs are sent to a panel consisting of a psychologist, social worker, and legal adviser for appropriate treatment (which may be refused without criminal punishment), instead of jail…..

Compared to the European Union and the US, Portugal drug use numbers are impressive. 

Following decriminalization, Portugal has the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the EU: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%, Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana. 

The Cato paper reports that between 2001 and 2006 in Portugal, rates of lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%. Drug use in older teens also declined.  Life time heroin use among 16-18 year olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8%. 

New HIV infections in drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003.

Death related to heroin and similar drugs were cut by more than half….

Property theft has dropped dramatically (50% - 80% of all property theft worldwide is caused by drug users)…

Portugal's 10 year experiment shows clearly that enough is enough. It is time to end the war on drugs worldwide. We must stop criminalising drug users. Health and treatment should be offered to drug users – not prison. Bad drugs policies affect literally hundreds of thousands of individuals and communities across the world. We need to provide medical help to those that have problematic use – not criminal retribution.

The Szasz in me rebels against the "medical model" as well and the idea of facing a panel of psychologists and social workers, but as long as their recommendations can be refused, it's certainly better than the criminal model.

He may be the closest living analog to Bond villain Hugo Drax, but at least Branson's a good guy, and for that we are thankful.

And remember: no Tubular Bells, no private space flight! (Maybe.)

Bonus trippy synchronicity: While in the middle of composing this post, was listening via Spotify to the Common CD The Dreamer, The Believer, in which Common, unbeknownst to me beforehand, drops a line about Richard Branson. ("I need space like Richard Branson." It rhymes with "tantrum," sort of.) Hey, you would have thought it was cool too.

From Reason's July 2009 issue, Nick Gillespie interviews Glenn Greenwald on the Portuguese drug legalization model.