By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, involved in such ventures as selling space travel to the affluent, is now pushing for people to have the freedom to get high here on Earth without risking going to jail.
The British billionaire argues criminal punishment fails to stem drug abuse, and is calling on countries to decriminalize drug use and eliminate criminal penalties on narcotics consumers or even consider legalizing drugs.
"The prohibition of drugs has worked no better than the prohibition of alcohol, and serves only to empower violent criminal cartels and harm U.S. citizens," Branson said in an e-mail interview with Reuters.
U.S. officials counter that the drug war has succeeded in keeping many forms of drug abuse in check.
Branson's campaign comes as voters in Washington state and Colorado are poised to vote in November on ballot measures that could legalize marijuana for recreational use, in the face of opposition from the federal government.
He verbally jousted earlier this month with the likes of former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and one-time Scotland Yard chief Ian Blair at a Web debate hosted by Google+ titled "It's Time to End the War on Drugs."
The Virgin Group mogul serves on the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which has among its members former presidents of Colombia, Brazil and Switzerland and grew from the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy.
Last year, the panel released a report critical of the drug war, dismissing arguments that the threat of criminal prosecution was necessary to get addicts into treatment.
"There is literally no evidence that the threat of incarceration deters drug use," Branson said.
Branson's work arguing for changes in drug policy is just the latest in a series of bold exploits such as a world record attempt to circle the planet in a hot-air balloon, in addition to his space flight venture.
Virgin Galactic plans a test flight this year and commercial space flights as early as 2013. Branson, who says he will be on the first commercial flight, also vows to push the frontiers of ocean exploration with a mechanized dive deep into the Atlantic.
LATIN AMERICAN LEADERS
Earlier this year, Guatemalan President Otto Perez called for a broader debate on drug policy and for countries to consider removing criminal penalties for narcotics, and said he would raise the issue at a Latin American summit in April.
But that and similar calls by former Latin American leaders have met with resistance from the United States. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said last month she would not agree with the "premise that the drug war is a failure."
Branson, whose multi-billion dollar Virgin Group includes an airline and a mobile phone unit, has become one of the most high profile figures to take up the cause of drug decriminalization.
"The problem now is that governments lack credibility," he said. "People know alcohol is more dangerous than pot, so the hypocrisy in the system makes government advertisements useless."
Branson said he was encouraged by Portugal's experience since it abandoned criminal prosecution for drug use in 2001, citing a decrease in HIV transmission.
Portugal's Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction has reported that the percentage of drug addicts in newly diagnosed HIV patients dropped to 22 percent in 2008 from 40 percent in 2002. Illicit drug use is linked to the spread of HIV, due to such factors as the sharing of heroin needles.
The institute found use of certain drugs in Portugal had increased only slightly since decriminalization, with the percentage of the population that had used cocaine at least once rising to 1.9 percent in 2007 from 0.9 percent in 2001.
When asked if, as a business leader, he would expect worker productivity to flag if marijuana was legalized, Branson seemed to brush away those concerns. He said cigarettes and alcohol were more dangerous and caused illness and absenteeism.
"But in business, productivity continues to rise despite the availability of alcohol and cigarettes," he said. "I don't think pot would be any different."
The Obama administration has said it seeks to have more Americans with drug problems get treatment as an alternative to incarceration. U.S. officials also cite certain victories in reduced drug abuse, such as a reduction in the number of cocaine users to 1.5 million in 2010 from 2.4 million in 2006.
A. Thomas McLellan, a former deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Barack Obama, said he agreed with calls for drug decriminalization, but not legalization.
"Drug use is subject to the same laws as any other attractive commodity," said McLellan, who lost a son to a drug overdose in 2008. "If you make it easier to obtain, more convenient, cheaper, free, you're going to have more users."
(Reporting By Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)