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America Needs to Open Up the Debate on Decriminalization

Posted: 03/19/2012 3:12 pm

In a debate sponsored by Google + and Intelligence Squared last week, I supported the motion that "it is time to end the war on drugs." I continued the discussion in Washington D.C. at an event hosted by The Atlantic two days later. For over 40 years, global efforts to punish drug users have failed to stem the drug trade and instead caused epidemics of violence and crime. Throughout Europe and Latin America, and in many U.S. states, a similar debate is playing out: Can and should the drug war be replaced with drug regulation that supports individuals with health issues and focuses law enforcement on serious criminals? This debate should be taken up by President Obama and his Republican rivals as well.

In 2009, more than 1.6 million Americans were arrested for non-violent drug crimes. Each of those convicted and imprisoned cost taxpayers about four times more in jail then they would in treatment. A stunning $51 billion is spent incarcerating drug users in America even though most of them have done no harm to others. Ironically, many come out of prison hardened, violent criminals. And the system is racist: even though blacks and whites have similar levels of drug use and drug dealing, blacks are 10 times as likely to be incarcerated for drug crimes.

This election year, America needs to open up the debate on decriminalization of drug use to consider reforms in-line with the recommendations of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, on which I served alongside former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and former Brazilian President Fernando Cardoso.

Analyzing drug policy around the world, we determined that they only way to have a real impact, and to treat people with the dignity they deserve, is to decriminalize drug use and treat it as a health problem so that addicts do not resort to criminal behavior in pursuit of their next fix. This will help us to stop filling our prisons and free up law enforcement to go after violent traffickers and organized criminal gangs.

In thinking about decriminalization, the U.S. can look to some examples. In Switzerland, heroin use was targeted by drug substitution and public health measures instead of incarceration in the 1980s. Heroin use dropped, participants in the program committed 90 percent fewer property crimes, and the heroin market was disrupted as it lost its best customers. Users that failed to respond to treatment were put on supervised heroin maintenance plans that stopped crime and HIV infection and reduced drug related deaths. In Portugal, personal use of all drugs was decriminalized in 2001. Free from the threat of prison, more drug users now get treatment, and HIV transmission is way down. Opiate use in the critical 16 -18 year old demographic dropped.

Cases like these have shown that drug use does not surge in response to decriminalization. It is important to note that these states did not legalize drugs; they decriminalized drug use by individuals. Decriminalizing focuses the right tools in the right places so law enforcement goes after violent organized crime, addicts get health care and social services, and young people get honest education about the risks of drug use. Under such a model, drug policy would become a comprehensive issue for families, schools, civil society and health care providers, not just law enforcement.

The U.S. Federal Government should sanction new approaches by states that include ending the criminalization of individual use in favor of treatment, and reward policy experimentation and careful analysis of the outcomes of new policies. With your diversity of states, cultures and public policy structures, the U.S. is the best place for such experimentation based on decriminalization and a public health approach.

Well-intentioned reforms by the Obama administration are sending some non-violent drug users to special courts that direct treatment instead of prison. But these reforms do not go far enough and leave too many contradictions in U.S. policy. Indeed a senior White House official said recently, "The Obama administration has been quite clear in our opposition to decriminalization or legalization of illicit drugs." And federal authorities have been going after medical marijuana distributors in states that have legalized it, depriving medicine to those who are sick.

Seeing the impact of alcohol prohibition in the U.S. in 1921, Albert Einstein noted: "The prestige of government has undoubtedly been lowered considerably by the Prohibition law. For nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced. It is an open secret that the dangerous increase of crime in this country is closely connected with this."

The laws against drug use cannot be enforced, and the failure of this approach continues to cause crime and suffering. With Mexican drug cartels operating in 230 American cities, prison populations beyond bursting, and addicts unable to get the medical help they need, it does not take an Einstein to see that it's time for U.S. leaders to embrace drug policy reform and end the war on drugs.

Sir Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and the non-profit foundation Virgin Unite.