For years, I’ve been on a mission to help end the so-called war on drugs, an epic failure of global and national drug policies that has led to the loss of countless lives, wasted billions in taxpayer funds and continues to needlessly criminalise millions of people - often just for the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use.
This relentless pursuit of a drug-free world has done absolutely nothing to stem the global flow of drugs, to curb supply or reduce demand in any noticeable fashion. Drugs are all around us. Our communities are not one bit safer, and our children have greater access to illicit substances than at any point in the last 50 years.
One look at Mexico and Colombia will suffice to understand how the futility of the drug war has exacerbated a vicious cycle of violence that has created more casualties than drug use itself. But the problem is truly global. Year after year, we cede control of a vast, illicit drug market – equal in size to the global textile trade – to criminal organisations with no regard for public health or safety. It’s a deadly business turning over more than 300 billion dollars annually, remarkably capable of escaping intervention and fighting back. No matter what governments throw at it – from blunt force to harsh sentencing – many don’t seem to understand that the illegal drug trade in all its facets is a renewable resource, an indomitable regenerative force driven by nearly unmatched growth potential.
So, if we know the war on drugs has been a failure and if we have a pretty solid idea why, what should be the alternative? It may well boil down to one simple word: regulation.
This week, some of my fellow members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy gathered in Mexico City to introduce what I consider a viable proposal to wrestle control of the illicit drug market from the criminal underworld. “Regulation: the responsible control of drugs” encourages policymakers to explore legal markets for previously illicit drugs, something that is already being tried with cannabis regulation in Uruguay, Canada and a number of US states. The idea is simple: if an illicit market cannot be reined in, why not create a legal one with tight controls on production, distribution and marketing - a market that actually offers transparency and allows people to make informed choices; a market that can be taxed and whose tax receipts can be invested in education, harm reduction and treatment? (To be clear, neither I, nor the Virgin Group, pursue any commercial interests in regulated medicinal or recreational drug markets.)
These all sound like excellent ideas to me. And to be clear: the evidence so far doesn’t show that regulation opens the floodgates for a wave of new drug users. We all know that drug use bears risks, but those of us favouring regulation believe firmly that it can moderate and reduce them. Let’s not fight another battle in the war on drugs. For the safety of our children, for the health of those who use drugs, for the wellbeing of our communities, there is a better way.