British businessman Richard Branson and U.K. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg have advocated for drug policy reform in the past. But experts say their op-ed calling on the U.K. to end the war on drugs, published Tuesday in The Guardian, is especially noteworthy as British elections near.
"Doing this in advance of the election is symbolically important," Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told The Huffington Post. "It's rare for such a significant party to take such a bold stance on drug policy."
Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, and Clegg, a Liberal Democrat who has been deputy prime minister since 2010, argue in their article that the country's prohibitionist approach to drug use has failed, and its residents would be better served by policies that emphasize treatment instead of punishment.
"As an investment, the war on drugs has failed to deliver any returns," they write, pointing to a growing criminal market, rising incarceration rates of "people whose only crime is the possession of a substance to which they are addicted," and no meaningful reduction in drug use across Britain's population. "If it were a business, it would have been shut down a long time ago. This is not what success looks like."
Polls suggest that Clegg's party stands little chance of victory in Britain's general election on May 7. But Nadelmann noted that Clegg's longtime support of drug policy reform has already helped to change the discourse. And now that Clegg is taking a firmer stance, it will likely become a key issue for the Liberal Democrats.
"His commitment to the issue and his outspokenness has helped legitimize the drug policy reform perspective in British politics," Nadelmann said. Over the past several years, he said, even conservative publications like the Daily Mail have begun to shift the tone of their drug coverage. "The tabloids have evolved from being knee-jerk drug war proponents to having significantly more moderated views," he said.
Nick Clegg appears with Richard Branson during a talk on drug policy.
The United States officially declared "war on drugs" in 1971 under President Richard Nixon. According to Nadelmann, the U.K. began adopting its harshest policies a decade later, during the Margaret Thatcher administration. Now, as Clegg and Branson write, "the west is undergoing a tectonic shift; and the U.K. seems oblivious to it."
They cite legalization of recreational marijuana in four U.S. states, along with decriminalization and harm-reduction efforts in Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Denmark, as proof that their country lags behind. Since Portugal introduced one of the world's most sweeping decriminalization efforts in 2001, teenage drug use, drug-induced deaths and HIV/AIDS rates have declined, while the number of individuals receiving treatment for addiction has increased.
"The Portuguese system works, and on an issue as important as this, where lives are at stake, governments cannot afford to ignore the evidence," Branson and Clegg write. "We should set up pilots to test and develop a British version of the Portuguese model."
A recent Guardian poll found that 84 percent of Britons think the war on drugs can't be won and that 88 percent think marijuana should be either legalized or decriminalized. Sixty-one percent of respondents, however, answered "no" when asked if "certain drugs that are currently illegal" should be legalized or decriminalized. Meanwhile, a new political group that calls itself the Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol party plans to use the U.K.'s general election to advocate for marijuana reform.
Clegg and Branson didn't go so far as to say Britain should legalize drugs as well as decriminalize them. Nadelmann said this tactic may work in their favor.
"When someone advocates for full-scale legalization, it tends to distract attention from more important and realistic incremental reforms," Nadelmann explained. For him, meaningful reform includes ending marijuana prohibition, reducing incarceration rates and emphasizing treatment over criminalization. The position of Branson and Clegg "reflects the more nuanced and sophisticated drug policy dialogue that has evolved," he said.
Read Branson and Clegg's entire Guardian op-ed here.