So what’s an English billionaire doing fighting drug policies in the United States? “I think the domestic reform just makes America’s moral stance in lecturing other countries, which they’ve done––not only lectured but sent in forces and sprayed crops and done some pretty horrendous things around the world––now that stance that they’re taking is going to be much more difficult to moralize,” Branson said. He believes that focusing on domestic American reforms would reduce the global policy will to criminalize drugs and would provide strong momentum for pushing a goal that seems well beyond even the outer limits of the American policy imagination. “Decriminalizing and regulating all drugs is going to be the answer,” he proclaimed.
Branson leans heavily on the international example of Portugal as evidence for the efficacy of decriminalization. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs, replacing jail and prison time with fines or rehab appointments for those caught using drugs in public. The results have been dramatic, with drug deaths and addiction both falling by large margins over the years, an example which has convinced Branson and the Global Commission on Drug Policy. “The amount of people taking heroin now has gone down by something like 80 percent,” Branson said.
Although polls consistently show that Americans are now in favor of marijuana legalization, Branson’s quest to replicate the successes of Portugal is almost quixotic given the state of American policy. Even liberal voters have trouble countenancing the legalization of all drugs, and even liberal states have not yet come to a consensus on marijuana policy. But Branson views the different drug doctrines developing—from total marijuana legalization to decriminalization or medicinal management—as useful innovation labs. “Our position is that countries and states should work on different approaches,” he said. As long as states are moving towards treating drugs as a health problem and not a criminal problem, Branson is in favor.
But the complex dynamic between state and national politics does seem to frustrate Branson and the Commission. Presidential candidates and other politicians in national office are less likely than some state officials to support sweeping changes to drug policy. Or, as Branson put it, “politicians can be quite cowardly.” He praised the pro-decriminalization policies of Senator Rand Paul among Republicans in particular, and noted that Hillary Clinton was reserved in a discussion that they’d shared on the topic a few years ago. In all, Branson seemed less-than-sure of his ability to convince national leaders to decriminalize drugs from the outside, but was confident that developments in states and local areas—he had strong praise for Denver, Colorado—could provide the domestic pressure needed.