Richard Branson

When he visited the White House, Branson joked that he asked Obama "if I could have a spliff, but they didn’t have any."

British billionaire Sir Richard Branson enjoys a distinction as the business magnate you'd most like to be. The hippest corporate chieftan of them all - he started Virgin Records, Virgin Airways, Virgin music festivals and even Virgin Galactic commercial space travel - Branson earns piles of money in the coolest ways possible. But he still has plenty left over to help make the world a better place through his countless philanthropic activities.

He's thrown his incredible knack for publicity in support of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a group of government leaders promoting legalization, taxation and regulation of cannabis and other drugs. Focusing on the fiscal and human waste of locking up non-violent drug offenders, Branson co-produced with his son Sam a free YouTube documentary Breaking the Taboo, which is narrated by Morgan Freeman and features former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

"We just spent two years looking at the War on Drugs and it is obvious it failed," says Branson. "You’ve got something like 1.5 million people in American jails languishing for taking drugs and that is wrong.”

Asked by CNN's Erin Burnett if he partakes, Branson said, "I'm a '60s lad. I tried a spliff or two when I was a teenager." In another interview, he mentioned smoking cannabis on a surfing vacation with Sam. In 2011, when he visited the White House, Branson joked that he asked Obama "if I could have a spliff, but they didn't have any."

Born on July 18, 1950 in London, Branson's entrepreneurial streak began early when a knee injury and struggles with dyslexia pushed him away from school and sports, and into the world of business to make his mark, he explains in his autobiography, Losing My Virginity.

He initially launched a magazine about his peers called Student, landed interviews with Mick Jagger and John Lennon, and soon found himself selling records in a small store in London. One store led to another, and then to the formation of his own label. Mike Oldfield's electronic masterpiece Tubular Bells helped launch Virgin Records in 1973. Four years later, Branson signed the Sex Pistols. Other bands and performers on Virgin included Janet Jackson, Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers, Simple Minds, Culture Club and the Human League. He sold the company to Thorn EMI in 1992 for $1 billion.

Branson maintains he'll only start a business - from mobile phones to banking to condoms - because it's fun and interesting, not just to make money.

Looking ahead, he hopes to blast off an era of space tourism by signing up passengers for this new Virgin Galactic venture. He's gotten a strong response despite the steep starting price of $200,000 per flight. There's also talk of putting an orbiting hotel in space.

Expect to hear plenty more about Branson in the near future, with plans for him and two family members to take their first Virgin Galactic flight. And he'll no doubt continue pushing for legalization as a humane solution to the drug war.

Branson married his second wife, Joan Templeton, in 1989. They have two children, Holly and Sam.


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Matt Chelsea

Matt Chelsea

Loves a nice morning buzz with his coffee as a bicycle commuter, counterculture scribe and dad.