Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Community Voices is generously supported by The Minneapolis Foundation; learn why.

Break the taboo here in Minnesota

Is it time to treat drugs as a health problem rather than a criminal problem?

After more than four decades, it’s time to acknowledge that the war on drugs has failed.
REUTERS/Anthony Bolante

Drugs. The great debate. Should we treat drugs as a health problem rather than a criminal problem? Should we change existing drug laws or not? The simple answer is yes.

Sir Richard Branson

When in 2011 I became a commissioner of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, I joined an esteemed group of global leaders, including seven former Heads of State, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, former European Commission Head Javier Solana, and the former Head of the U.S. Federal Reserve Paul Volcker. We all share one simple message: After more than four decades, it’s time to acknowledge that the war on drugs has failed. It’s a message that resonates with people around the world. So what is holding us back from taking the next step?

Last year, my son, Sam, collaborated with a wonderful group of filmmakers to produce an eye-opening documentary on this exact issue. Narrated by Oscar winner Morgan Freeman, “Breaking the Taboo” includes interviews with President Clinton and Fernando Cardoso, the former President of Brazil — who currently chairs the Global Commission on Drug Policy. The film makes a powerful and compelling case why existing drug laws here in the United States and around the world must be changed. For instance, Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimated in 2008 that regulating and taxing drugs would inject over $76 billion a year into the U.S. economy. Given the financial turbulence of recent years, just imagine what a difference that could have made.

Article continues after advertisement

This weekend in St. Paul, Mayor Chris Coleman and I will discuss why taking a more science- and fact-based perspective on drug policy is so important. Why? Because much of the debate has been distorted by exaggeration, misinformation and fear-mongering. The truth is that a policy reversal makes not only economic sense; it also would be a much more humane response than the current approach, which has cost way too much in lives and dollars. The United Nations estimates that in the past 30 years, more than $320 billion have been spent on the war on drugs. And the FBI says that in 2009, there were roughly 1.6 million arrests in the U.S. for drug possession alone, over half of those related to marijuana, which still isn’t legal — even for medicinal purposes — here in Minnesota.

Here’s why it should be. If one of my businesses keeps losing money, then the business is broken. Well, these current drug laws are broken, and they need to be fixed. While Minnesota has one of the lowest inmate populations in the country, the Drug Policy Alliance reports there are fifty drug courts in this state alone. We need to find a pathway to the decriminalization of drugs and drug users. Drug addiction shouldn’t be treated as a crime, but as a public health issue. In doing so, we can cut the enormous costs on law enforcement and incarceration, while also generating billions of dollars by in greater tax revenues. Once again, the polls here in the United States often show majority support for decriminalization. It’s time that public policy responds to this trend.

Four years ago, a bill legalizing marijuana for medical use here in Minnesota was passed, and then vetoed by then Gov. Tim Pawlenty. It was clearly a missed opportunity but there are new bills currently in the State Legislature including H.F. 1818 introduced by Rep. Carly Melin. Let’s hope they make it. 

What many people don’t realize is how the war on drugs has been fueling other public health crises. In 2012, new reports by the Global Commission on Drug Policy on Hepatitis C and HIV showed how repressive policies are failing to reduce transmission rates among drug users. Let’s face it, our current polices not only keep millions criminalized and locked up in overcrowded prisons, they actually kill people every day. Mayor Coleman and I will be joined in our panel discussion by Sarah Gordon of the Minnesota Department of Health, who currently heads up Minnesota’s advocacy for all things related to testing and harm reduction based services for Minnesotans.

The good news is that the silence about the harms of repressive drug policies has been broken — they are ineffective, violate basic human rights, generate violence, and expose individuals and communities to unnecessary risks. Now is the time to reform. Now is time the time to break the taboo. Please join me and others in doing so.

Sir Richard Branson is the founder of Virgin, and a commissioner on the Global Commission for Drug Policy. “Breaking the Taboo” will be shown at St. Paul’s Landmark Center on Sunday, July 28 at 2 p.m. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion led by Sir Richard Branson and Mayor Chris Coleman.


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at