The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime pushed back on Monday against reports that it is planning a historic move away from criminalizing drug use and possession around the world.
Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, in a blog post published early Monday, cited an unreleased U.N. briefing paper that signaled the policy change.
"This is a refreshing shift that could go a long way to finally end the needless criminalization of millions of drug users around the world," said Branson, a longtime advocate for decriminalizing drugs.
But UNODC spokesman David Dadge said in response that there had been an "unfortunate misunderstanding" and that the document remains "under review."
"The briefing paper on decriminalisation mentioned in many of today’s media reports, and intended for dissemination and discussion at a conference in Kuala Lumpur, is neither a final nor formal document from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and cannot be read as a statement of UNODC policy," Dadge said.
The BBC had reported that the U.N. withdrew the paper after pressure from at least one member state, but the U.N. denied that claim as well.
"It is not possible to withdraw what is not yet ready," Dadge said.
Tamara Bennett, a spokeswoman for Branson, said he "released his blog after concern that the UNODC would withdraw the announcement."
Branson noted that the international war on drugs has cost billions, but that criminal organizations are still thriving. "Globally, more than one in five people sentenced to prison are sentenced for drug offenses," he said.
"Until we fully legalize and regulate drugs, their production and profits will remain in the hands of violent organized crime networks," said Tom Angell, chairman of the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority.
Branson, along with other public figures and world leaders, belongs to the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which called for the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana last September.
"We need drug policies informed by evidence of what actually works, rather than policies that criminalize drug use while failing to provide access to effective prevention or treatment," former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, one of the commissioners, said at the time. "This has led not only to overcrowded jails but also to severe health and social problems."
Marijuana is increasingly being decriminalized, but the trend hasn't caught on for other drugs. Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize the production, distribution and sale of marijuana. It's now legal to purchase marijuana in four U.S. states -- Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington -- as well as the District of Columbia.
Ryan Grim contributed reporting.
This article was updated after publication to include the U.N.'s response to Branson's comments.
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