Pubdate: Tue, 20 Oct 2015
Source: Irish Independent (Ireland)
Copyright: Independent Newspapers (Ireland) Ltd
Author: Tom Moynihan


'We Should Treat Drug Use As a Health Issue'

A United Nations body plans to urge governments around the world to 
decriminalise possession of drugs for personal use, tycoon Richard 
Branson said last night.

The Virgin entrepreneur said that in an as-yet unreleased statement 
circulated to the BBC, himself and others, the UN Office on Drugs and 
Crime (UNODC) called for decriminalisation of drug use and possession 
for personal consumption for all drugs.

He added in an article on his blog: "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.

"My colleagues on the Global Commission on Drug Policy and I could 
not be more delighted, as I have stated in embargoed interviews for 
the likes of the BBC. "Together with countless other tireless 
advocates, I've for years argued that we should treat drug use as a 
health issue, not as a crime. While the vast majority of recreational 
drug users never experience any problems, people who struggle with 
drug addiction deserve access to treatment, not a prison cell."

He said governments had poured billions into tough law enforcement 
that did nothing to reduce drug supply or demand, or take control 
from the criminal organisations in charge of the drug trade.

In the United States alone, more than 1.5 million people were 
arrested in 2014 on non-violent drug charges, 83pc of those solely 
for possession.

Globally, more than one in five people sentenced to prison were 
sentenced for drug offences, he said.

"It's exciting that the UNODC has now unequivocally stated that 
criminalisation is harmful, unnecessary and disproportionate, echoing 
concerns about the immense human and economic costs of current drug 
policies voiced earlier by UNAids, the World Health Organisation, 
UNDP, The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Women, Kofi Annan 
and UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon."

Mr Branson said that in places where decriminalisation has been 
tried, such as Portugal, drug-related deaths were reduced 
significantly, as were new HIV or hepatitis infections.

"Combined with harm reduction programmes, decriminalisation will save 
lives as people who use drugs will no longer fear arrest and 
punishment when accessing healthcare services, it will also reduce 
crime and ease the burden on prison systems and law enforcement agencies."

Mr Branson said he was hearing that at least one government was 
putting an inordinate amount of pressure on the UNODC.

"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."

A spokeswoman for Mr Branson said he had been told the move was to be 
launched on Sunday, at the International Harm Reduction Conference in 
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He had received the statement under a strict 
embargo for Sunday morning. However, he had then learned last Friday 
that the UNODC had decided not to go ahead with the release.

In a statement last night, the UNODC said that the document remained 
under review and it was "not possible to withdraw what is not yet ready".

Overall, it was committed to promoting alternatives to incarceration.

The statement said: "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.

"It 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. 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.

"Overall, UNODC remains committed to the balanced approach that, in 
particular, promotes alternatives to incarceration in line with 
international human rights standards."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom