There’s no doubt that drugs are a serious issue in the United States, but a fair amount of controversy surrounds the country’s “war on drugs” approach to the problem. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson is a vocal participant in this debate, speaking out in favor of drug decriminalization on his blog.
In one essay, Richard Branson urges countries to follow the example of Portugal, which has decriminalized the possession and use of drugs. Is this approach a viable alternative to the current war on drugs? Let’s take a closer look at Portugal’s drug policy and see what we can learn from their example.
Richard Branson and the War on Drugs
Richard Branson has long spoken out for the decriminalization of drug possession and use, and he’s also a part of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a group that promotes discussion on humane ways to reduce the damage caused by drugs. While Richard Branson may be one of the more high-profile opponents to the war on drugs, he’s not alone in his opposition.
Research from the American Civil Liberties Union indicates that drug arrests are responsible for nearly 25 percent of people currently serving prison time in America; however, the rate of drug use has not declined despite these crackdowns. Opponents of the war on drugs believe that incarceration isn’t the best way to address crimes that are rooted in substance abuse and addiction.
On his blog, Richard Branson writes about the changes in drug policy Portugal has made in recent years. The country executed massive drug law reforms in 2001, decriminalizing the use of all illicit drugs as well as low-level possession of these drugs. Drug offenders are no longer arrested, but rather brought before a panel that can refer the offender to a voluntary drug treatment program.
This health-centered approach has had positive results; despite the decriminalization initiative, drug use rates have remained roughly the same, the rate of HIV infection has dropped and Portugal’s drug use rate continues to be far lower than that of the United States.
What Can We Learn?
Portugal’s success in replacing prison time with an offer of treatment surprised critics of the program, who feared that decriminalizing drug use would bring drug tourists to the country and fuel Portugal’s drug problem.
Richard Branson’s essay also points out that the United States has the world’s highest rates of marijuana and cocaine use, while many European countries with more liberal drug policies have less drug use overall.
The debate surrounding the war on drugs is certain to continue for years to come. The current approach to the country’s drug problem is well-intentioned, but it won’t break the cycle of addiction and drug-related crime.
Addiction is a chronic disease. Without treatment, drug offenders are likely to relapse and commit the same offenses again. An emphasis on rehabilitation creates a more balanced approach that may be more effective in the long term.