Now's the time to decriminalise, says the legendary financier.
George Soros, the multi-billionaire financier and philanthropist, is supporting the Independent on Sunday's campaign to decriminalise cannabis.

Mr Soros, one of the world's richest men, is backing our drive to change the laws on the personal possession of cannabis for recreational and medical purposes through his New York-based research foundation, the Lindesmith Centre.

In 1995 Mr Soros earnt the highest personal income reported by any private citizen in the world, some $600m, but he also gave $300m away. Most of his charitable donations go to educational and direct-aid projects in the former Eastern bloc countries of the old Soviet empire.

His philanthropic plan is to create the philospher Sir Karl Popper's concept of an "open society" based on tolerance for minorities, intellectual freedom and social self-restraint.

Mr Soros was hardly known outside financial circles in Britain until October 1992 when he spearheaded a wave of speculative selling that eventually drove sterling out of the ERM (Exchange Rate Mechanism).

He started life in a humble Jewish home in Hungary and was 14 when the Nazis took over. After the Russians came in he escaped to England, went to the London School of Economics and studied under Professor Popper. He then became one of Wall Street's most brilliant fund managers and was worth $4m by 1969. Eleven years later, having become one of the world's most powerful financial speculators, he began to establish his "Open Society" foundations.

Last month he announced that he was prepared to spend up to half a billion dollars in Russia on philanthropic projects which will include funds to fight the spread of tuberculosis, improve mother and child medical care and retrain personnel leaving the armed services.

Nearer home, he has this year donated $15m to fund the fight to reform the US's draconian drug laws. In a personal statement, Mr Soros wrote: "I wanted to congratulate the Independent on Sunday's campaign to broaden the debate about cannabis policy. This is an important and courageous initiative. I hope others in the UK, the USA and elsewhere will follow your lead.

"I am also pleased to see your newspaper make use of Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts, a book published by The Lindesmith Centre. The book has been strongly endorsed by the principal authors of the last two independent US commissions on marijuana.

"While I do not favour the outright legalisation of cannabis, I do favour its legalisation for medicinal purposes as well as broader decriminalisation, provided adequate safeguards are taken to minimise misuse among young people. I am delighted to find out that I am not alone. In a recent poll of British Members of Parliament, 70 per cent of those surveyed believe there is a good case for legalising cannabis for medicinal purposes.

"In the US, I was proud to support voter initiatives to legalise the medicinal use of marijuana and I will continue to support such initiatives in the future. It is a shame that the American War on Drugs continues to block these efforts to remove sanctions on doctors and patients to treat pain and nausea with whatever medications work.

"Even more tragic is the fact that marijuana arrests in the US have more than doubled since 1991 ... an absurd waste of our criminal justice resources.

"The Cannabis Conference is a timely step in developing a more rational drug policy in the UK and I believe it will influence the drug policy debate in the US and beyond. For too long the debate has been one-sided - dominated by those against the free exchange of ideas.With experts and leaders from such a wide range of disciplines, I am confident your conference will provide a model for future debates on drug policy.Very best wishes for your campaign and I look forward to seeing many others join this debate."

Members of the Lindesmith Centre will attend our discussion at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre on Thursday. They will be joined by 15 MPs including Brian Iddon, Gordon Prentice and Dr Phyllis Starkey.

The conference is being supported by Richard Branson and the Virgin group, and Anita Roddick and Body Shop. A spokesman for Body Shop said:"All the arguments need to be put before the public and judicary and since Lord Chief Justice Bingham called for debate, the Independent on Sunday kicked it off, and interest has gathered, the time for that debate is now."