Drug use should not be treated as a crime, Sir Richard Branson said yesterday as new sentencing guidelines for judges hinted that low-level street dealers could be spared jail.
The tycoon, a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, told MPs the war on drugs had failed and it was time to stop “trying to deal with it as a criminal problem rather than a health problem”.
Sir Richard was among the first to give evidence as the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee began the first parliamentary inquiry into drugs policy for more than 10 years.
The previous inquiry in 2002, when David Cameron sat on the committee, found drug use was a “passing phase” for many young people which “rarely results in any long-term harm”.
At the time Mr Cameron said he hoped its report would “encourage fresh thinking and a new approach” to the issue because the UK’s drugs policy had been “failing for decades”.
Calls for drug possession to be decriminalised have become louder since then, with even the Government’s official drugs advisers, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, suggesting there was an “opportunity to be more creative” about the problem.
But the Home Office has already said it has “no intention of liberalising our drugs laws”.
Sir Richard told the committee that giving responsibility for narcotics to the Department of Health instead of the Home Office had worked in Portugal, where not a single person has been jailed for using drugs in the last 10 years.
The change in Portugal came after it had a “massive drugs problem” where “heroin was rampant”, Sir Richard said.
He added: “100,000 young people are arrested every year, and the figures are growing, for taking drugs. 75,000 of these young people are given criminal records.
“By actually moving drugs into the health department and not in the Home Office, if people have a problem, just like in Portugal, they should go in front of a panel to help them.”
Sir Richard said that, if drugs were treated as a health issue, “every single bit of concern would be about the individual and making sure they get better”.
The committee heard evidence as the Sentencing Council published guidelines recommending that small-time dealers caught with heroin, cocaine or thousands of pounds worth of cannabis could avoid jail.
Those offenders could be given community sentences if they are found to have played a lesser role in gangs.
Some drug ‘mules’, who bring narcotics into the country and are usually women exploited by organised criminals, may also avoid prison, although those who carry Class A drugs would still be put behind bars.
Criminals found guilty of producing drugs on a large scale can expect tougher sentences, as can anyone dealing to under-18s.
The council’s deputy chairman, Lord Justice Hughes, said: “Drug offending has to be taken seriously. Drug abuse underlies a huge volume of acquisitive and violent crime and dealing can blight communities.”
Martin Barnes, chief executive of DrugScope, said: “DrugScope has long had concerns about the numbers of women involved in low-level supply and other offences as a result of violence and intimidation: far too many end up in the courts and in our prisons.”
But Dr Jennifer Fleetwood, a criminologist at the University of Kent, said new guidelines were a “missed opportunity” to make sentences fairer.
“These sentences will punish drug mules for decisions over which they have no control,” she added.