When it comes to illegal drugs, Sir Richard Branson is absolutely right. The business tycoon – who is also a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy – told MPs yesterday that prohibition has failed and that drug abuse should be treated as a health problem rather than a criminal issue. It can only be hoped that the Government is listening.
It is not that drugs are not a health risk: while some may be relatively benign in moderation, others are deleterious in even the smallest quantities. But banning them simply has not worked. The number of people taking drugs worldwide has remained stubbornly at around the 5 per cent mark for more than a decade, despite the vast sums of money poured into governments' efforts to control the problem.
In consumer countries, such as Britain, punitive laws have meant street drugs that are less pure and therefore more dangerous, increased levels of petty crime, even more over-crowded prisons, and – thanks to the 75,000 people charged with drug offences every year – an expanding class of criminals.
In countries that produce drugs, the impact is more pernicious still. Rather than cutting crime, prohibition has cultivated global gangsterism on an unprecedented scale, fostering a narco-industry worth more than $300bn a year and used to fund everything from illegal arms deals to human trafficking to war. In Afghanistan, for example, Taliban drug lords haveused opium to buy guns. Across Latin America, cartels are tearing societies apart. Nearly 13,000 people were killed in Mexico's drug wars alone in the first nine months of last year, a rate nearing one person every half an hour.
There is no perfect solution. The case for maintaining the status quo is, of course, that more people will take drugs if they become more freely available. But the link between heavy penalties and lower drug use is disputed. And evidence from countries like Portugal and Germany suggests that a more considered approach yields positive results. Indeed, it would be difficult to make matters worse. As Sir Richard so rightly says, it is time to be brave. Drugs should be decriminalised.