Environmental issues are increasingly becoming a focus of many people’s lifestyle choices. Greener living is also a policy of governments, communities, law enforcement and schools that promote more environmentally sound decisions and condemn destruction and pollution. The connection between drug use and environmental destruction is rarely made. People who may live an otherwise sustainable and green-focuses life may indulge in drug use without consideration for the immense damage this may contribute to pollution, erosion, destruction of farm lands and sensitive forest regions.

Drugs such as cocaine, heroin, MDMA and methamphetamine are manufactured or processed in ways that are harmful to the environment. Toxic by-products may also be produced that are dumped illegally into waterways or into the land due to the lack illegality of the drugs. There is no regulation or enforcement of environmentally sound growing methods for coca plants or opium poppies and they are often eradicated by crop dusting with harmful and powerful chemicals.

Cocaine Production and the Environment

Cocaine is a naturally occurring alkaloid found in certain varieties of the Erythorxylum genus, or coca plant. The plant can grow in widely varied climates and soil conditions, though the highest cocaine content is found in plants that are grown in higher, cooler climates. Cocaine is harvested from the leaves which are continuously stripped from the plant.

Coca is usually grown in the South American regions of Peru and Colombia. Colombia is the largest cocaine producer in the world. The region in which the plant is grown, is one of the most ecologically diverse and sensitive areas worldwide. Coca plantations subject the environment to increasing levels of abuse, degradation and pollution. Coca farmers clear large areas of land for the plantations, often with little respect or understanding of the immense problems they are contributing to. Harsh chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides are used to increase the yield and potency of the plants. These chemicals will run off into other areas, polluting waterways and forest land. Additionally, roads and other infrastructure has to be built to support the network of plantations which increases erosion and further destruction.

Opium Production and the Environment

Opium is a substance that naturally occurs in a specific species of poppy. Opium is synthesized legally and illegally to produce pharmaceutical medicines and the illicit drug heroin. Illegal opium plantations are found in large areas of Afghanistan, Myanmar and Laos. The plants thrive in alkaline soil in limestone rich regions in the mountainous areas in these countries which are ecologically sensitive.

Opium plantations are often grown on land that is illegally logged and cleared and large amounts of chemical insecticides and fertilizers are used to increase the yield of the crop. Very little consideration is given to the consequences of the clearing of sensitive lands and the impact this has on both the physical and social environment. Land slides, flooding, erosion and drought can all be attributed to the vast amounts of opium cultivation that is occurring in Afghanistan and Myanmar. This is especially the case in regions that are controlled by warlords or military dictatorships who benefit from these money crops.

Methamphetamine Production and the Environment

Methamphetamine production is a highly dangerous and toxic process that can contribute to serious environmental destruction. When the by-products of methamphetamine are released into the environment at dump sites, they can ruin the soil, plants or waterways that they are dumped in. This can contribute to sensitive ecosystems being affected and destroyed. Animals may come in contact with the chemicals and become poisoned and fish or other aquatic animals may be killed due to the toxins in the water.

Many of the chemicals used in the making of methamphetamine are highly flammable, poisonous and reactive. By-products from methamphetamine production are often discarded in forests, fields, streams and rivers which can cause extensive environmental damage. Clandestine laboratories that are set up in houses, vehicles, boats and other sites are often uninhabitable after methamphetamine has been made in them. The toxic gases and liquids that are released during the cooking process with coat surfaces, floors, furniture and windows leading to large clean up costs.

Illegal Drugs and Deforestation

Illegal coca and poppy crops are often subjected to law enforcement eradication which may include physical removal of the plants by hand or the use of crop dusting techniques to target large crop areas. Biological agents that are used in aerial eradication or crop dusting can cause severe environmental problems. These agents are designed to cause widespread damage.

Evidence suggests that these agents do not only kill the coca plantations, but damage legitimate crops such as beans and corn. Additionally, there is proof that the crop dusting also can destroy sensitive forests and contribute to the extinction. Aerial eradication also contributes to a loss of legitimate crops and destroys other options for peasants from the poor regions that the illegal crops are grown. They may be displaced due to the eradication programs and move to new regions that are not destroyed.

Chemical herbicides used to destroy coca plantations often encourages farmers to clear more forest in remote areas to make space for their illegal and legal crops. This is often done with very basic tools in a method described as ‘slash and burn’ in difficult areas. Land is cleared for both the crops and for housing, roads and other infrastructure which can contribute to delicate soil and nutrients to be washed away, protected or endangered plants being destroyed and erosion. Animals that are eaten such as fish and mammals may also become affected by the environmental damage from the eradication process which can cause further problems for farmers and peasants who rely on these animals as a means of food.

Demands for opium or cocaine are not reduced by the eradication of crops, and in fact demands and prices may increase in direct response to the crop damage. This can then increase the number of farmers clearing forests and farm land to increase the crops of opium or coca due to the financial benefits to them. In some areas, pressure from warlords, drug gangs or governments can increase the demand for the production of these cash crops. This is incredibly unsustainable and environmentally damaging.