Drug traffickers ought to be worried that their livelihoods could evaporate, and they could be forced to move back in with their mothers. People have forgotten that decades ago, crime generally wasn’t a good way to make a living: It was after the drug war began that pop culture started to portray drug dealing as a route from poverty to riches. But only a few actually become wealthy, and as Freakonomics authors Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt showed in their 2005 book, many street dealers live with a parent and take part-time jobs to make ends meet. Other studies have shown that many of these exploited workers are hardcore addicts themselves. To cut off the flow of money to the top criminals, all we have to do is call a halt to the drug war and decriminalize the use of illegal substances.

The war on drugs funnels money to exactly the wrong people: When public officials pursue a tough-on-crime agenda, narcotics dealers profit as drug prices go up, while demand remains the same. This is an industry that earns more than $300 billion each year (around 15 trillion), and with that sort of money at stake, criminals will do anything to evade the police: move their drug manufacturing operations to countries where authorities can’t pursue them; buy heavy weaponry (as in the case in Mexico); infiltrate government agencies (as has happened in many nations in West Africa); kidnap and intimidate police, politicians and civilians. Criminals get rich while ordinary people pay the price—both in terms of higher taxes and, sometimes, with their lives.

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In a world where the drug problem only gets worse—an estimate by the UN shows that consumption of opiates worldwide, including heroin, increased by 35% between 1998 and 2008—it’s difficult to imagine criminals reduced to looking for proper jobs. In some countries in Latin America, the drug cartels are challenging the authority of the government—some of their militias are better equipped than the military, and the gangs have been known to provide communities with security and basic social assistance. In Afghanistan, a fair proportion of the money flowing to the Taliban comes from the sale of opiates. The US Drug Enforcement Administration says that Al Qaeda agents in North Africa, West Africa and Europe have funded their operations through the drug trade.

Until recently I felt, as many people do, that the war on drugs was the best policy for our society. But I changed my mind soon after joining the UN Global Commission on Drug Policy along with former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, Javier Solana, the European Union’s former foreign policy chief, former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, and many others. Our findings, which were released in June, show that the global war on drugs has been a very expensive mistake.

Our commission found that in countries where drug addiction was decriminalized and regarded as a public health problem, there were decreases in crime, decreases in the number of addicts, and improvements in overall public health. Portugal, for instance, decriminalized the use and possession of drugs in 2001. By setting up clinics where heroin users have access to needles and methadone, along with medical treatment for addiction, Portugal reduced its number of users, especially among young people and addicts. The number of new cases of HIV (from dirty needles) fell from 907 to 267 between 2000 and 2008, and researchers also reported a reduction in household burglaries.

As a business assessing new businesses, our team at Virgin often looks at what works in different countries, studying how we can adapt successful approaches to new markets. In the case of the drug war, our commission has shown that the key is to switch to harm reduction strategies. One of the more telling studies looked at the situation in Switzerland, which switched from a law-and-order approach to public-health-focused policies in the 1980s and 1990s.

According to research by Martin Killas and Marcelo Aebi of the University of Lausanne: “Heavily engaged in both drug dealing and other forms of crime, (hardcore problematic users) served as a link between wholesalers and users. As these hardcore users found a steady, legal means for their addiction, their illicit drug use was reduced as well as their need to deal in heroin. ... By removing local addicts and dealers, Swiss casual users found it difficult to make contact with sellers." The addicts, who are often both users and low-level dealers, but whose need had been reduced by medically prescribed heroin, had been the crucial link between suppliers and casual users.

Imagine that in your country, addicts are not being jailed, but treated at clinics. Imagine that their numbers are declining. That police departments have ended their efforts to round up low-level dealers and some of those officers are now focusing on organized crime. Many have been freed up to work on community policing, because even petty crime by addicts is on the decline. That the additional public funds are being spent on health and social programmes rather than on law enforcement and prisons. That, just like when Prohibition was ended in the US, the black market has dried up and the drug gangs have withered away. That money and power are no longer associated with drugs and crime, and the media, and even our culture, are changing in response.

How do we take a stand against crime? By eliminating the drug dealers’ connections to their markets. So let’s pull the plug—and save lives.

BY NYT Syndicate

©2011/Richard Branson

Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active He maintains a blog atwww.virgin.com/richard-branson/blog