| LOS ANGELES
LOS ANGELES Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, involved in ventures that have included attempting to circle the globe in a balloon and selling space travel to the affluent, says people should to have the freedom to get high on Earth without risking going to jail.
The British billionaire argues that criminal punishment fails to stem drug abuse, and is calling on countries to decriminalize drug use and eliminate criminal penalties on narcotics consumers. He argues that countries should even consider legalizing drugs.
"The prohibition of drugs has worked no better than the prohibition of alcohol, and serves only to empower violent criminal cartels and harm U.S. citizens," he said in an e-mail interview with Reuters.
U.S. officials counter that the drug war has succeeded in keeping many forms of drug abuse in check.
Branson's campaign comes as the U.S. states of Washington and Colorado plan to include the issue of whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use in November's election, setting up a potential showdown with the Federal government.
Branson verbally jousted earlier this month with the likes of former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and former London police chief Ian Blair at a Web debate hosted by Google+ titled "It's Time to End the War on Drugs."
Branson serves on the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which has among its members former presidents of Colombia, Brazil and Switzerland and released a report last year critical of the drug war, dismissing arguments that the threat of prosecution is necessary to get addicts into treatment.
"There is literally no evidence that the threat of incarceration deters drug use," Branson said.
Earlier this year, Guatemalan President Otto Perez called for a broader debate on drug policy and for countries to consider removing criminal penalties for narcotics, and said he would raise the issue at a Latin American summit in April.
But that and similar calls by former Latin American leaders have met with resistance from the United States, which rejects arguments that the drug war is a failure and says it is important to prevent people becoming addicted to drugs.
Branson said he was encouraged by Portugal's experience since it abandoned criminal prosecution for drug use in 2001.
Portugal's Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction has reported that the percentage of drug addicts in newly diagnosed HIV patients dropped to 22 percent in 2008 from 40 percent in 2002. Illicit drug use is linked to the spread of HIV, due to factors such as the sharing of heroin needles.
The institute found use of certain drugs in Portugal had increased only slightly since decriminalization, with the percentage of the population that had used cocaine at least once rising to 1.9 percent in 2007 from 0.9 percent in 2001.
"The problem now is that governments lack credibility," Branson said. "People know alcohol is more dangerous than pot, so the hypocrisy in the system makes government advertisements useless."
When asked if, as a business leader, he would expect worker productivity to flag if marijuana was legalized, Branson said cigarettes and alcohol were more dangerous and caused illness and absenteeism.
"But in business, productivity continues to rise despite the availability of alcohol and cigarettes," he said. "I don't think pot would be any different."
A. Thomas McLellan, a former deputy director of the U.S, Office of National Drug Control Policy said he agreed with calls for drug decriminalization, but not legalization.
"Drug use is subject to the same laws as any other attractive commodity," said McLellan, who lost a son to a drug overdose in 2008. "If you make it easier to obtain, more convenient, cheaper, free, you're going to have more users."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and David Brunnstrom)