Watch This!

12.07.12

Virgin Heir Sam Branson’s Drug War

The son of airline mogul Richard Branson takes on global drug policy in a YouTube-released documentary. He talks to Tony Dokoupil about his strategy, future plans—and the odds of a Kony-style naked breakdown.

Sam Branson needs a Coke. Diet won’t do. “I need the sugar,” he says. It’s the morning after the world premiere of Breaking the Taboo, a documentary released by his production company Sundog Pictures, and the 26-year-old son of Virgin mogul Richard Branson is bracing for his first real press tour. Last night the film—a potent chronicle of the rise, failures, and future remedies for the war on drugs—debuted at Google headquarters in Manhattan, and he didn’t even go out celebrating, preferring to get some rest and review his case against the global drug war.

Video screenshot

It’s not only his case, of course. It’s the case of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose membership includes former presidents of Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Brazil and Poland, along with Richard Branson, who tells The Daily Beast that it’s time for President Obama to get moving on reform.

“If he wants to do something that would be perfectly acceptable on a national basis, he should announce immediately that we’re going to treat drugs as a health problem, not a criminal problem,” the elder Branson says by phone, and “nobody will go to prison ever again for taking drugs.” That’s also the case of Morgan Freeman, who spell-bindingly narrates the film, which is based on more than 175 interviews in eight countries. The conclusion, according to this chorus: “the global drug war is the biggest failure of global policy in the last 40 years.”

And yet sitting politicians remain wary of talking about the alternatives, as though anything but black-and-white prohibition on drug sales and possession will expose them to attack ads come campaign season. The title of young Branson’s film comes from its overarching goal to change this reality, to break the state of taboo, starting a debate on drug reform. To that end the film probably won’t be coming to a theater near you. Instead it’s been released through YouTube and launched along with a petition, a kind of Kony 2012 for global drug policy.

Once a Coke was secured, I sat down with Sam Branson to talk about that strategy, his future plans, and whether he’ll follow the maker of Kony 2012 into the pantheon of naked breakdowns.

So what happens if we revamp drug policy?

People always say to me, if we regulate drugs, even heavily regulate drugs, there’s going to be a free for all. And the point is that there is already a free for all now. Drugs are available all over the world and all of that money is going into the hands of criminals.

So legalization is the answer?

The word “legalize” is thrust into the mouth of anyone interested in an alternative other than repression—and it’s belittling the argument. People think about the facts and the stats, but the reality is that these are people we’re talking about and I think we need to think more about the negative impact [current] drug policy has on people than some futile goal of creating a drug-free society.

Why is a guy like you onto this subject in the first place?

I think the drugs issue is one that really affects everyone on the planet, and people get so caught up in the bloody ideology of it and the moralistic view, but these are people we’re talking about, and people’s lives are being ruined.

Tell me about Sundog Pictures. I mean, why not just go work for Virgin?

I always had this sort of bee in my bonnet about doing my own thing. And I’ve been passionate about the medium of film for years. And I’m passionate about philanthropy. And those interests merged together into setting up this business I wanted to run. The company is set up to bring the audience information on important subjects, and maybe I naively think I can change the world through film, but that’s what I’m doing.

Will the rise of Sundog mean the demise of your adventure travel?

I hope not….being able to look objectively on the rat race of the world from places like the Arctic and other extreme places and to push yourself mentally and physically is probably the most addictive drug you could get. And I will be doing more of it for sure. I think everyone should. I actually think that addicts of illegal drugs and alcohol and so forth should probably get out and about more, and see how addictive being healthy can be.

Why did you decide to push this movie out online?

It’s organic when it’s online. Anyone in the world could click on it right now. And if it flies, it’s down to the people wanting it to fly. And if it doesn’t, then it won’t. It’s so honest, in a way, it’s brutally honest, online. So fingers crossed.

How many views is the goal?

I’d really hope for 500,000. A million, I’d be extraordinarily happy, and any more than that is just proof that the internet has splashed old models out of the water.

So this is, basically, Kony 2012 for drug policy?

Well, Kony 2012 devoid of the controversy surrounding it.

So we’ll see you naked, pounding the streets tomorrow like the maker of Kony, too?

Maybe not tomorrow.