The UN may be about to call on the governments of all countries to end the “war on drugs” and decriminalise the use and possession of all illegal substances. In a post on his Virgin website, titled “Finally—a change in course on drug policy,” Richard Branson said he had been showed a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) which dramatically changed the organisation’s stance on drug control.  Branson has long called for the decriminalization of drug use and the possession of all drugs for personal consumption and is a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy—a group that fosters international discussion about humane and effective ways to reduce harm caused by drugs.  He said the “as-yet unreleased statement” had been sent to some of the world’s media under embargo – but that he has gone public with it early for fear the UN will “bow to pressure by not going ahead with this important move”. The UN was preparing to declare “unequivocally that criminalisation is harmful unnecessary and disproportionate”, Branson wrote.  The move marks a ‘refreshing shift’ in attitudes to drug use, Branson said.  A document changing the UN stance on drug control was supposed to be released at a conference in Malaysia on Sunday, he said, but that has now been delayed. “As I’m writing this I am hearing that at least one government is putting an inordinate amount of pressure on the UNODC,” he said. “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.”  Branson said he and his colleagues on the drugs policy commission could not be more delighted at the move, given that he had argued for years that drug use should be treated as a health issue rather than 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.’  A long time advocate of drug legalisation, Branson, whose net worth Forbes estimates at $5 billion, gave evidence to the home affairs select committee in 2012. He told MPs it was time to rethink policy because the “war on drugs” had failed. It comes just a week after ministers rejected calls from MPs – and a petition signed by 220,000 people – to legalise cannabis for personal and medical use.  Despite the groundswell of public support for decriminalisation, and evidence presented in a Westminster debate on the issue, it was dismissed out of hand by justice minister Mike Penning. Branson added: “In their zeal for chasing the illusion of a drug-free world, governments have 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 global drug trade. 
Within hours of his claim, however, UNODC made it clear that no such change in policy was imminent and said it regretted an “unfortunate misunderstanding” over the nature of a two-page briefing paper written by one of its senior officials.  “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 … and cannot be read as a statement of UNODC policy,” a spokesperson said. “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.”  The paper says that it clarifies UNODC’s position and explains that decriminalising drug use and possession for personal consumption is consistent with international drug control conventions. The paper also highlights the imprisonment of “millions of people” for minor, non-violent drug-related offences despite legal alternatives, and emphasises that the threat of arrest and criminal sanctions have been widely shown to obstruct access to lifesaving health services such as sterile needles and opioid substitution therapy.  VICE News reached drug policy advocates in Kuala Lumpur, who said they were caught off guard when UNODC failed to release the text on Sunday after it was first circulated last Friday. “We were expecting this historic announcement where the UNODC finally recognizes the failures of criminalization internationally,” said one policy expert attending the conference in Malaysia. “We all knew it was coming.”  VICE News could not confirm those accounts, but the US would be one of only a handful of countries — including Russia and possibly China — that hold such weight in the international drug policy arena. The head of UNODC, Yuri Fedotov, is Russian, and formerly served as the Kremlin’s ambassador to the United Kingdom. UNODC, for its part, is one of the most opaque and closed agencies at the UN. Critics say that its dual mandate — to handle drug use and fight international crime — led it for decades to conflate the two. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as well as reform advocates, have pushed for UNODC to cede some drug policy control to agencies such as the World Health Organization. 
The UNODC, which employs 1,500 people worldwide, has been a driving force behind drug policy for decades.  The mandate of the UNODC, established in 1997, is to help member states fight against illicit drugs, crime and terrorism.  With more governments flouting the U.N.’s official policy by decriminalizing possession of drugs, and several—including Uruguay, Jamaica, and two U.S. states—legalizing marijuana altogether, there’s been increasing pressure on the UNODC to clarify its stance on the issue. Another U.N. agency, the World Health Organization, called for decriminalization last year as has the Global Commission, which in addition to Branson, includes several former presidents and former U.S. secretary of state, George Shultz.  So far, the response from the UNODC has been muddled. The organization did praise Portugal’s fairly radical decriminalization moves in a 2009 report but has stopped short of encouraging other countries to copy them. UNDOC director Yury Fedotov has said that it’s up to member states to decide “what needs to be done” to prevent drug use, but that “legalization is not a solution.” Today’s leak gives the impression that not everyone within the top international drug policy organization is on the same page.