Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, participates in a discussion at the Clinton Global Initiative on Sept. 28, 2015. (Mark Lennihan, The Associated Press)

Richard Branson: UN to ask world govs to weigh drug decriminalization

Updated Oct. 19, 2015 at 12:01 p.m.

British entrepreneur Richard Branson has released what he says is an embargoed report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime that will “call on governments around the world to decriminalize drug use and possession for personal consumption for all drugs,” Branson wrote on his blog.

But the UN Office on Drugs and Crime released a statement on Oct. 19 denying Branson’s claim, saying “the briefing paper on decriminalisation mentioned in many of today’s media reports, and intended for dissemination and discussion at a conference in Kuala Lumpur, is neither a final nor formal document from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and cannot be read as a statement of UNODC policy,” UNODC spokesperson David Dadge said in the statement.

The UNODC — created in 1997 via a merger of the United Nations Drug Control Programme and the Centre for International Crime Prevention — “is mandated to assist Member States in their struggle against illicit drugs, crime and terrorism,” according to its website. Branson says in his new blog post that the organization “has shaped much of global drug policy for decades.”

Branson released the UNODC’s alleged document — “an as-yet unreleased statement circulated to the BBC, myself and others,” he wrote — in fear the organization wouldn’t release it as planned.

“As I’m writing this I am hearing that at least one government is putting an inordinate amount of pressure on the UNODC,” Branson wrote. “Let us hope the UNODC, a global organisation that is part of the UN and supposed to do what is right for the people of the world, does not do a remarkable volte-face at the last possible moment and bow to pressure by not going ahead with this important move. The war on drugs has done too much damage to too many people already.”

The new statement from the UNODC “emphatically denies reports that there has been pressure on UNODC to withdraw the document. But, it is not possible to withdraw what is not yet ready.”

The document Branson leaked is on UNODC letterhead and labeled “Briefing paper: Decriminalization of Drug Use and Possession for Personal Consumption.” (See the full paper on Branson’s blog.) The paper reads:

“The international drug control conventions do not impose on Member States obligations to criminalise drug use and possession for personal consumption. Member States should consider the implementation of measures to promote the right to health and to reduce prison-overcrowding, including by decriminalising drug use and possession for personal consumption.”

Branson called the UN’s apparent change in direction “refreshing.”

“This is a refreshing shift that could go a long way to finally end the needless criminalisation of millions of drug users around the world,” Branson wrote. “The UNODC document was due to be launched at the International Harm reduction conference in Malaysia yesterday.”

The alleged document was not released on Oct. 18. UNODC’s statement said the document “remains under review and UNODC regrets that, on this occasion, there has been an unfortunate misunderstanding about the nature and intent of this briefing paper.”

Branson also pointed toward next April’s United Nations General Assembly Special Session on drugs in his blog.

“As the UN General Assembly gears up for the first drug debate in 18 years next April, I hope this groundbreaking news will empower and embolden governments everywhere, including the UK, to do the right thing and consider a different course in drug policy,” Branson wrote. “In the face of overwhelming evidence, UN expert opinion, and international human rights law, it’s not decriminalisation that ‘sends the wrong message’ — it’s the continued refusal to engage, review or discuss reform.”

The UNODC closed its new statement with a direct, if broad, nod to potential drug policy change to come: “Overall, UNODC remains committed to the balanced approach that, in particular, promotes alternatives to incarceration in line with international human rights standards.”

Branson responded to the UNODC’s new statement via Twitter: “Great to see @UNODC respond. Challenge them to point out if anything is inaccurate in their excellent briefing paper.”