Sir Richard Branson has never sat on an idea. A frenetic 40-year career in the public eye has seen him launch Virgin Group, with its 400 companies, while juggling time between world record attempts, Hollywood cameos and humanitarian drives. Lately, Branson has embarked on a new adventure, one no less challenging than attempting to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon. As a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, Branson is sharing the spotlight with the burgeoning movement to end the U.S.-led war on drugs.
That crusade brought him to New York this week for the premiere of Breaking the Taboo, a documentary film asserting that the 40-year-old drug war, centered on prohibition rather than rehabilitation, has failed on all fronts. Narrated by Morgan Freeman, the film splices images of brutal violence with interviews with global leaders, including former U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who lambast the $1 trillion global war for overcrowding prisons while doing little to curtail drug use among an estimated 230 million people around the world. “Obviously, if the expected results were that we would eliminate serious drug use in America and eliminate the narco-trafficking networks, it hasn’t worked,” says Mr. Clinton during the film.
Breaking the Taboo opens with a world premiere Friday at a computer screen near you. The film’s producers have partnered with YouTube to air the documentary for free, all in an effort to reach as wide an audience as possible (http://www.youtube.com/breakingthetaboofilm). It’s an innovative model that Branson championed this week when he paused at a downtown hotel to speak with TIME.
Can you tell us about the making of Breaking the Taboo?
The idea was to make it an experiment with it being the first film that’s released through YouTube and Google. We’re fortunate that the top people at Google and YouTube are both sympathetic to what the commission is doing. If you release a documentary film conventionally, you’re going to get very few people seeing it. So the idea is to basically give it away and get as many people in the world to see it as possible.
You’re a busy man. Why dedicate your precious time to the Global Commission on Drugs?
Before joining the commission my instinct was that current laws have failed and something needed to be done about it. As a businessman, if you have a business that has failed for 50 or 60 years you generally close it down or change tact after one year. You don’t wait 60 years, especially when it’s creating so much misery to so many people’s lives. It’s literally killing tens of thousands of people.
What’s your specific role in the commission?
Having built the Virgin brand as a global brand, the commission has felt that maybe I can help them get the message out. It has helped that my son [producer Sam Branson], who runs a small film company, has made the film to boot. The commission is extremely happy with the film and we’re hoping it will do to the drug war what Inconvenient Truth did with global warming—raising awareness. I can help get the message out. With social issues, it sometimes helps to have a business perspective.
Where has the current war on drugs failed?
It’s torn countries in South America apart. It’s caused complete misery from the top of society right throughout. It’s almost turned some countries into lawless countries, in the same way that prohibition of alcohol did in America with Al Capone and all the misery that went on during prohibition. So one of the commission’s approaches is to experiment with treating cannabis as you treat alcohol. Regulate it. Tax it. Use those taxes to help with health issues, to help with education.
Did personal experience help convince you to join the commission?
In running a record company, a lot of our artists had issues and we would help them address those issues. Boy George suffered badly from heroin. He had two of his partners die in his flat. I took him to my house in the country and brought a very good doctor who’s very good at getting people off drugs, with the idea that he would spend a couple of months in my home. And while he was there, the police raided my home and arrested him, encouraged by the popular newspapers. He did not finish his program. Fortunately he survived and has managed to clean himself of heroin. There were a lot of different situations like that, so I had a lot of firsthand knowledge of people who have gone too far.
What is Virgin Group’s drug use policy?
We go out of our way to take on ex-convicts to come work with Virgin, so we’re certainly not going to punish people for taking drugs, unless they happen to be pilots of our airplanes, where we would obviously take a dim view, like we would with alcohol. So it depends on their role in the company, but my approach in the workplace is rehabilitation. If someone has a problem, help them. Somebody was stealing from our company once and, instead of calling the police, we sat them down and gave him another chance, and he turned out to be one of our best artist and repertoire people ever. In fact, he ended up signing Culture Club. So I think generally trying to be more understanding is important.