This article first appeared on VICE Quebec.
It’s been hammered on you since your childhood: drugs are bad. If your parents were telling you this first and foremost to protect you and your precious brain cells, now science is saying this to protect the planet. While 15,000 scientists around the world agree, once again, that we are running out of time to save the planet, it is pertinent to question one of the North Americans' favourite drugs: cocaine—it’s a real environmental dick.
Cocaine production is destroying the forests of South America at an alarming rate. Look, I’m not here to preach and tell you that you should not do this or that. But it's important for you to know everything that's going on before you take your keys in the bar's bathroom. (And yes, there are ethical and societal reasons not to do cocaine, but that’s another article.)
As you probably know, cocaine is derived from coca leaves, a plant that grows naturally in many South American countries, including Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. But coca leaves produce very little of the alkaloids necessary for the production of cocaine. To support global demand, many coca leaves must be grown and many illegal pesticides are used that are harmful to native flora.
Only some people have the right to cultivate coca whose leaves are used in traditional ceremonies or chewed by Indigenous people to combat the effects of altitude living in the Andes. As most of the cultivation of these leaves is illegal, producers have to grow their coca in the forest, and the rainforests of South America are an important ecosystem.
Furthermore, illegal coca cultivation for cocaine production results in approximately four square meters of virgin forest being cleared for every gram produced. With a worldwide production of about 865 tons (i.e 865 million grams) of cocaine a year, that's a lot of square meters of deforestation.
Put on your lab coat, Heisenberg, I’m about to give you a brief crash course on cooking cocaine. The most common way to produce "pure" cocaine is as follows. The coca leaves are ground very finely before being mixed with water, lime, carbonate and kerosene (or gasoline, or diesel). Let that marinate for a few days, stirring from time to time. But the cocaine is still stuck in the solvent, so we warm that mixture up and add sulfuric acid. The mixture is then filtered and pressed. To the mixture of cocaine sulfate is then added caustic soda, which separates the sulfuric acid from the cocaine paste.
And what do you think we do with all the residues of the chemicals used? They are dumped into the nearest body of water, of course, and that may end up in drinking water for endangered wildlife and the inhabitants of the riparian villages, making them sick (or worse).
And the damage does not stop there. In many of the producing countries, the cocaine market is a vital economy, and studies show that people tend to settle around the places where it is produced, hoping for better living conditions. Although most settle there to take part in essential and perfectly legal activities such as agriculture or commerce, the construction of new homes for this growing population accentuates deforestation. These sites were formerly havens of peace for several endangered species.
So yes, there are certainly countless choices that contribute to the destruction of the planet—every day is a battlefield of environmental regret—but we can start by asking questions about the little, damaging things we do that can be avoided. So, it may be fun, but if you forget to text Johnny Snow at midnight on Saturday, the Amazon rainforest will thank you.
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