How Bad, Really, Is Cocaine?

For the environment, not for you personally. We know it is quite bad for you personally.
Photo: Andia / Alamy Stock Photo

"Oh FFS" is a column that identifies all the stuff you love most in life and looks at how it's destroying the planet. This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

What is it? Cocaine.
What's that? TFW you wake up to a deep sense of shame and six increasingly manic "overdrawn" alerts from your mobile banking app.
Is it biodegradable? Kind of, insomuch as it's broken down by your body after you take it – but huge amounts still show up in the wastewater of major cities around the world.


How bad is the problem?

Ah, cocaine. The most widely used illegal drug that you can properly ruin your life with. We all know that long-term coke use can damage you personally – the structural integrity of your nose, basically all of your organs, your relationships with anyone you've ever valued – but what effect does our unceasing appetite for cocaine have on the planet?

"Cocaine powder is an alkaloid extracted and refined from the leaves of the coca plant," explains Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst at drugs think-tank Transform. "Coca leaf can be farmed like any other plant – however, when prohibited, production becomes clandestine and tends to move into new remote land, specifically deforested for growing coca."

So, essentially, every time you do a line, you are complicit in the deforestation of the Earth, and moreover the global warming that will one day kill us all. Rack me up another!

And that's not all:

"When such [coca] plantations are eradicated [by law enforcement] – either manually or by aerial spraying – rather than eliminating production, it simply displaces it somewhere else, leading to further deforestation, as well as the wider environmental impacts of spraying with toxic herbicides," adds Steve. "A second serious environmental harm comes from the processing of leaf into cocaine. The large volume of toxic chemicals used are discharged directly into the ground and waterways, causing profound pollution and environmental harms."


Okay, but just the one gram – that's no so bad, right?

"The carbon footprint for a gram would be tiny," Steve tells me. "There's no reason it would be any different to any other refined plant product imported from Latin America, except for the cumulative effect of eradication and deforestation."

What a relief. Just have to continue ignoring the fact that your single gram of pub grub only made it across the Atlantic as part of a huge batch shipment of cocaine, produced by tearing down the rainforest that countless species, including mankind, needs desperately to survive.

What's the solution?

"It is prohibition that creates most of the environmental problems with cocaine – not coca or cocaine production, per se," says Steve. "There's no reason why legal production of coca – as happens in Bolivia – can't be environmentally sustainable. There is also legal production and a market for cocaine for medical use that is not associated with the gross environmental harms of the parallel illegal market."

With a legal global cocaine market presumably a fairly long way off, is there anything cocaine fans can do to stop their huge carbon footprint from stomping all over Earth? How do we make packet eco-friendly?

"The same way we do with any farmed product – organic certification; educating and supporting local producers; tax and other incentives; application of environmental sustainability standards; fair trade standards and so on," explains Steve. "None of this can happen while cocaine remains illegal and production and supply remains in the hands of criminal profiteers. Legalisation is an obvious prerequisite to any meaningful progress on this front."

So there you have it: the demand isn't going away, which means the devastating environmental impacts are here to stay. Unless, you know, policymakers start listening to evidence-based arguments and totally re-haul the way we treat the global drugs economy – so more deforestation it is!

@tom_usher_ / @SteveTransform