Entrepreneurs

Richard Branson: Trump administration's marijuana move 'a throwback to the worst days of the failed War on Drugs'

Sir Richard Branson.
Cameron Costa | CNBC
Sir Richard Branson.

Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson has harsh words for the Trump administration's move to end the legalization of non-medical marijuana — calling it both backwards and unproductive.

Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Obama-era policy that enabled states to sell non-medical marijuana. The move came the same week that the policy went into effect.

In 2013, then Deputy Attorney General James Cole published a memorandum saying the federal government would not get in the way of states deciding for themselves whether to legalize marijuana.

"This was a sensible move," writes Branson, referring to the memorandum, in a blog post on Friday. "Short of a much-needed change of US federal drug laws, the [Cole memo] has helped reduce the pointless criminalization of non-violent drug users and of those producing and selling recreational cannabis."

In the United Kingdom, where Branson is from, marijuana is illegal. Police have the choice to either issue a warning or a £90 ($122) fine if they catch a person with weed, or cannabis, according to the website for the British government. Branson, who currently lives on a private island in the British Virgin Islands, took sharp aim at the United States' drug policy.

"What the US doesn't need is another frontline in the War on Drugs. Decriminalisation, regulation and harm reduction are the way to go. Everything else will cost lives and money," Branson says.

Sessions has publicly expressed a vehement disapproval of marijuana, comparing it to heroin.

"I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store," Sessions said in Richmond, Va., in March. "And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana — so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that's only slightly less awful. Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life."

Rescinding the Cole memo is a step backwards, according to Branson.

The "announcement feels like a throwback to the worst days of the failed War on Drugs, which has not made a dent in the global drug trade, a multi-billion dollar industry entirely in the hands of criminal organisations," writes Branson.

"In fact, drugs are more available than ever before, and it's become abundantly clear that the only way of protecting our families and friends from the worst impacts of illegal drugs is to take back control of the market. That's what regulation does quite effectively. Either we put responsible government agencies in control of the market or we leave it in the hands of gangsters. There's no third option in which it magically disappears."

"In the face of an unprecedented opioid epidemic that kills hundreds of Americans daily, drug policy reform is a bipartisan priority, one of those rare issues where conservatives and liberals can agree that business as usual is no longer an option," he says.

"There is even compelling new evidence that states with legal medical cannabis availability have lower levels of opioid-related deaths. Legal cannabis is not just about reducing the harms of prohibition — it can also be about reaping the potential benefits."

Indeed, one October 2014 study published in the medical journal JAMA looking at data from 1999 to 2010 found states where medical marijuana was legal had fewer deaths because of opioid overdoses. "States with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8% lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate compared with states without medical cannabis laws," the study found.

Also, a study of Colorado opioid related deaths after the 2014 legalization of recreational marijuana use in Colorado published in the American Journal of Public Health found a decrease in opioid deaths after legalization. "Colorado's legalization of recreational cannabis sales and use resulted in a 0.7 deaths per month reduction in opioid-related deaths," the study says.

Both marijuana and opioids are used to treat pain, says a Washington Post story about the Colorado study, so patients in Colorado could opt to use marijuana to treat their pain instead of opiods. "Given the choice between marijuana and opiates, many patients appear to be opting for the former," the Washington Post says.

However there is some correlation between marijuana use and heroin use, according to Robert L. DuPont, the president of the Institute for Behavior and Health and the first director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

"Marijuana use is positively correlated with alcohol use and cigarette use, as well as illegal drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine. This does not mean that everyone who uses marijuana will transition to using heroin or other drugs, but it does mean that people who use marijuana also consume more, not less, legal and illegal drugs than do people who do not use marijuana," DuPont wrote in 2016 article for the New York Times.

"People who are addicted to marijuana are three times more likely to be addicted to heroin. The legalization of marijuana increases availability of the drug and acceptability of its use. This is bad for public health and safety not only because marijuana use increases the risk of heroin use," DuPont says.

See also:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end policy that let legal pot flourish

Marijuana investors skittish after Sessions' shot at pot

Stocks related to marijuana fell after news broke that Attorney General Jeff Sessions plans a major policy shift