A United Nations body plans to urge governments around the world to decriminalise possession of drugs for personal use, tycoon Sir Richard Branson said today.
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, 83% 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."
Sir Richard 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."
Sir Richard 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 Sir Richard 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.
He had then learned on Friday that the UNODC had decided not to go ahead with the release.
The UNODC said in a statement 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."
Transform Drug Policy Foundation, a think tank which campaigns for the legal regulation of drugs nationally and internationally, said governments must decriminalise drug use.
Senior policy analyst Steve Rolles said: "The UN agency in charge of the global drug war says criminalising drug use is unnecessary, disproportionate, causes ill health, violence and death, and breaks international obligations towards health and human rights as a result.
"The UNODC's call to decriminalise drug use is a crushing indictment of many governments' drug policies. All are in agreement that drugs can be bad for you, but criminalising people who use them makes them far more dangerous.
"It is time for international action that puts public safety – not political point-scoring – first, and to do that governments must decriminalise drug use. Failure to act now would constitute negligence that will result in thousands more unnecessary deaths."