Sir Richard Branson is the founder of Virgin and a commissioner on the Global Commission for Drug Policy. HIGH TIMES caught up with the mogul after a screening of Breaking the Taboo at the at the St. Paul's Landmark Center on July 28.
HT: We just saw the film, Breaking the Taboo, and one of the major elements was the corruption, money being spent and money being made by the drug cartels. In the news, we saw recently that HSBC was found guilty of laundering about nine billion dollars in drug cartel money. How much does the war on drugs owe to high finance and the big banking industries, and do you see any way of breaking this war on drugs without addressing the issue?
RB: Um, I haven't given it a lot of thought, to be honest. We've concentrated on whether or not the current war is doing damage to people or not doing damage to people. And the Global Commission on Drugs has come out very clearly saying that far more damage is being done to people by the current approach. What we're arguing is that drugs should be treated as a health problem, not a criminal problem, and we shouldn’t be locking up children, we shouldn't be locking up our brothers and sisters and we shouldn't be locking up other people's children and brothers and sisters. We should be helping them get back on a normal path. I think if we do that, and take drugs away from the cartels, then the problems you mention with both banks and the cartels should go away and we would be able to concentrate on helping the small minority that still has issues.
HT: It used to be just once leaders in South America and Central America got out of office they would address this problem. Now we've got the president of Colombia addressing it in office. What do you see... is that pressure from the Organization of American States having an effect on Washington DC, and to some extent, Ottawa as well? Are they beginning to realize this is a hemispheric problem that needs to be addressed?
RB: I hope so. And I think that the fact that President Obama has not sent in the federal authorities to close down Washington State after having voted for the legalization of marijuana indicates that he would like to see the public's reaction. So my feeling is that it could spill over from South America to North America and the rest of the world.
HT: We'd like to see that. You saw President Clinton in the movie, referring to his brother Roger having a cocaine addiction; many people that I interview who are involved with trying to end the war on drugs have a personal story was well. Is there a personal aspect in this for you that was the "aha!" moment that made you want to get involved with this?
RB: Well, having run a record company for many years, I've lost artists. Someone was talking about The Sex Pistols earlier -- Sid Vicious was a heroin addict. We nearly lost other artists as well: Boy George from Culture Club, we very nearly lost. Boy George was arrested in my home when we had him there under treatment. That set him back four or five years until he finally got himself clean. So yes, I think that those of us who've had personal experience in situations like this are better able to, I think, understand the problem.
HT: We’re still seeing in the UK what we call in America "Reefer Madness." I mean, Professor Nutt lost his job by saying ecstasy was safer than horseback riding. Are you making efforts in Europe and how are the parliaments and various legislative bodies -- France, Britain, Germany -- reacting to this message of Breaking the Taboo?
RB: Well, the Global Commission on Drugs has met with the House of Commons Select Committee, and the House of Commons Select Committee came out with a report saying that the policy needs to be changed. We're hopeful that policy will be changed. Britain is better than quite a few countries in that drugs are treated as a health problem. There are a lot of needle exchange centers in Britain. But there's further to go.
HT: While the United States has driven a lot of this drug war, much of it is tied in with international treaties at the UN level. Do you feel that the communities of nations -- the European community, the South American community -- can make this change without the United States getting involved, or is the US going to have to be a part of this?
RB: Ideally as many countries as possible should be a part of it, and I think in some ways the United States is actually moving quite quickly with things like the medical marijuana centers. So I think, by de facto, United States in some areas is moving quicker than some other countries and therefore it would be hypocritical to continue with the current stance.
HT: Thank you. And one final question: If a person wanted to get a job with one of the Virgin companies, is there a drug test involved?
RB: I suspect for our pilots and astronauts, but I doubt for any other position at Virgin.
HT: Good luck with the Global Commission, thank you for sitting down with us, and I hope Virgin Galactic takes off soon, because I want to go.
RB: It will be and I look forward to getting you up there.
HT: Thank you so much.
RB: Thank you. Cheers!