By hamish Mcrae for Independent. The UN wants its members to decriminalise drugs, and Sir Richard Branson thinks that is just great. Well, it is not quite like that; as so often, the story is more nuanced than the headline. The paper Sir Richard leaked, which urges “decriminalising drug use and possession for personal consumption”, was drawn up for a conference in Kuala Lumpur on harm reduction by Dr Monica Beg, an official at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Vienna. It has since been withdrawn and, as you can gather from the outcry, it is certainly a “third-rail issue” – you touch it at your peril.
Actually, the idea that personal drug use should not be a criminal offence is supported by other UN agencies, including the World Health Organisation and UNAIDS, and the argument is really about the balance of harm rather than any high principle. Is it better to have drug use made legal, and therefore taxed and regulated, or might this encourage more drugs to be consumed – with the social and other costs associated with that? This will be a central issue at the forthcoming conference on the world drug problem at the UN General Assembly next April.
The approach to drug use is a health, public-safety and human-rights issue. But it is also an economic one. Would the world be richer, calmer and happier if the issue were treated differently? What do we know?