Richard Branson Talks Legal Drugs at NYC Press Conference in the Waldorf


This morning, a bunch of high-powered people packed into a suite on the 33rd floor of the the Waldorf-Astoria to talk about drugs. Even though that might elicit thoughts of a Charlie Sheen-style bender, the meeting was, in fact, a press conference announcing a report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which broadly recommends ending what the report calls the “global war on drugs.” Members of the commission sat at a table at the front of the suite, which was decorated with paintings of ancient ruins and had flowered curtains.

Former Brazilian president and chair of the Commission Fernando Henrique Cardoso assured his audience that the members of the organization are “all people from, let me say, the establishment — not libertarian people.”

Yes, the panelists, which included the former president of Colombia César Gaviria and former president of Switzerland Ruth Dreifuss, all did look like they were from the “establishment” and not just a bunch of guys who really like weed. In fact, all men at the table wore suits and ties. That is, except for Commission member Richard Branson, the British billionaire and Virgin Group founder, who wore what appeared to be a black-velvet jacket (we didn’t touch it to make sure) and a white shirt with an open collar.

The report, which these men and women were in New York to promote, advocates that countries stop “the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but do no harm to others”; try “models of legal regulation of drugs” (especially pot); and offer health services to addicts. These changes, they claim, will promote a better social and economic welfare for countries who have spent too much money fighting drugs by prohibiting their use.

“What we’ve learned is that the war on drugs has increased drug usage, it’s filled our jails, it’s cost millions of dollars and other currencies of taxpayer dollars, and it’s fueled organized crime worldwide,” Branson said during the conference.

Media from around the world squeezed into one room of the otherwise fairly expansive suite — 33H, if you were wondering — as speakers went to the podium and described different sides of the Commission’s argument. Gaviria talked about its relation to violence in Latin America, while Dreifuss explained aspects of the medical part of the issue at hand. Branson was the last Commission member to speak and was introduced as the “co-founder” of the mysterious “group of distinguished people known as the Elders.”

“This is one of the most pressing issues in the world today so I’d like to thank you for being here and taking part in a special day in history — the day when we start to end the war on drugs,” he said dramatically, his white mane gleaming in the television camera lights.

The only person to come to the podium who decided to make a drug joke was the co-founder and executive director of Avaaz, which ran a petition asking people to support the cause.

“I have to admit when I was first approached by a couple of experts about a mass public campaign for the decriminalization of drugs, the first thought that went through my head was, ‘What have these guys been smoking?'” he said.