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An Open Letter to Sir Richard Branson

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Dear Mr Branson,

I have watched you speak on various television shows about your views on drugs and have read the blog where you cite Portugal as a positive example of how successful decriminalisation could be if applied worldwide. I won't go into dissecting the evidence you and the Global Commission cite to support your point of view (there's enough of that around already), because mine is not a rebuttal, but an appeal to dig deeper, and perhaps to put your words into concrete actions that could make a positive impact on many lives.

As someone who has worked for over a decade closely with people fighting addiction in order to regain their lives, to beat the odds society has given them by overcoming myriad personal challenges, I felt your remarks were based more on a political ideology than firsthand knowledge of the problem.

Your flippant remarks about "75% of your children's generation smoking cannabis" simply saddened me. Mr Branson, not everyone has the social and economic safety net that you and your friends have. Many more fragile and vulnerable people are listening to your remarks and will fall through the cracks. Wouldn't your considerable wealth and visibility be better spent advocating for real and sustainable rehabilitation programs or funding community-based prevention projects for marginalised youth, instead of sending a message that legitimises an unhealthy lifestyle and does nothing to improve the lives of those suffering from addiction?

I have no doubt you believe what you are saying about drugs and I can agree that prison is no place for an addict. People suffering from addiction deserve the best help they can get. They deserve the support necessary to live lives just as valuable and fulfilling as your or mine. They need real, long-lasting and sustainable support through education, life skills training, and counselling, so they can become active and contributing members of society. Removing accountability for their actions will not help. Of the thousands of former users I have worked with and come to love, I can guarantee that facing the negative consequences of their actions, even those that involved the criminal justice system, very often provided a wake up call, the "push" that was needed to turn their lives around.

Mr Branson, let me ask you a few questions: How many desperate mothers of addicts have you listened to? How many times have you taken an addict into your home and nursed him back to health, taking the time to understand him? Have you met with many who have lost all their money and possessions while a family member struggled through years of drug abuse? Have you spoken with any recovered addicts to better understand the dynamics which brought them to use drugs and the key to helping them find a better life?

I know you are a busy man, but I would like to invite you to come visit the center where I work. It is called San Patrignano, in Italy. I am sure you know that our country has some of the most progressive policies in Europe when it comes to providing alternatives to prison in cases of drug related crime. Many of the 1,000 plus residents who are getting help here would otherwise be in prison. Our services are provided free of charge and we are not funded by the taxpayers but by private donors and earnings from our social enterprises. Perhaps your opinions on drug policy are unchangeable, but I urge you to get the complete picture before getting on the proverbial soapbox again, as there are many lives in the balance. Our doors are open to you.

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