If alcohol and nicotine were to be discovered now, they would immediately be classified as dangerous drugs and, in all probability, banned.
Their addictive qualities are indisputable and both have had a deleterious effect on the social wellbeing of our so-called civilised society.
One – alcohol – has the capacity to breed violence, destroy families and inflict irreparable damage on those in its thrall.
The other – nicotine – is a pernicious and insidious poison directly responsible for millions of deaths and capable of reducing a healthy body to a husk.
Yet both have been assimilated into our culture, thereby enabling society to exercise a degree of education and control over their distribution and consumption.
Why, then, do we not treat heroin, cocaine, cannabis and all the other banned drugs in a similar fashion?
It is a cause Sir Richard Branson seems determined to take up – and I wish him well with it. His argument for a more enlightened approach is incontrovertible.
As he points out, we have spent 50 years and millions of pounds fighting the battle against drugs and all we have to show for it are increased use, overflowing jails and thriving crime syndicates.
Alcohol was banned in the United States in 1920, and this stunningly naive initiative lasted for 13 blood-stained, booze-raddled years.
Enforcement agencies wasted millions of dollars and man-hours in a struggle they were always destined to lose – and organised crime prospered before the authorities bowed to the inevitable.
It’s impossible not to compare this period in American history with the dilemma this country now faces in its futile battle against illegal drugs.
Decriminalising these substances and bringing distribution of them under state control would immediately lead to a reduction in crime at every level.
A thriving criminal industry would be destroyed virtually overnight and addicts could be treated as what they are – victims not criminals.
Costs could be met from the money saved by bringing the unwinnable struggle against the illicit trade to an end. But which politician is going to be brave enough to set the ball rolling?