Getting High Is Damaging the Planet – But Mostly Because of Prohibition
This is how cannabis, cocaine, MDMA and heroin are harming the environment.
Photo: Emily Bowler
Cannabis legalisation is gathering pace worldwide. Unprecedented amounts of cocaine, MDMA, and heroin are being produced in Colombia, Holland, and Afghanistan, while labs in China are pumping out an alphabet soup of synthetic drugs. The global demand for drugs – there are 275 million drug users worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation – continues unabated, as production capacity is ramped up year on year.
We know about the human costs of the illegal drug trade, such as crime, addiction, and death. But while traditional media narratives about drugs have centred on violence, they've often ignored another pitfall of the illegal drug trade: the environmental impact of a massive, underground, unregulated industry operating around the world. Here are the ways that our use of cannabis, cocaine, MDMA, and heroin – and the war against them – is damaging the planet.
The world's most popular illegal drug, cannabis can grow almost anywhere. Certain varieties of the plant are actually used to clean up polluted ground: industrial hemp (not a plant worth smoking, but part of the cannabis family nonetheless) was planted around the stricken Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the former Soviet Union in the 1990s to help leach up radioactive pollutants. In 2017, farmers in southeast Italy used hemp to decontaminate their soil from pollutants emitted by nearby steelworks.
Cannabis production, however, has a large carbon footprint. This is partly due to the fact the plant is commonly cultivated indoors because most of the world’s growers need to evade arrest.
According to Dan Sutton of Tantalus Labs, a Canadian firm that produces natural cannabis in greenhouses, the energy required to grow 1 kilogram of cannabis indoors creates 4,660 kilograms of CO₂ – the same amount as if you were to drive a car across the U.S. 11 times. He said that, despite increasing legalisation, an estimated 90 percent of all U.S. cannabis is still grown indoors. Research has shown that indoor U.S. cannabis cultivation accounts for 1 percent of America’s total electricity use, the equivalent of a year’s energy in 1.7 million homes. According to researchers at Swansea University, this generates 15 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually.
Geoff*, one of many people around the world who grows cannabis secretly in their own home, has a nine-plant illegal grow in London, England – a country where nearly 10,000 cannabis farms were busted in 2016.
"I grow in a basement under 1,000 watts of light," Geoff said. "The lights are on 24 hours a day for 60 percent of the year, making it hot. So I have to cool the room with air conditioning. But that dries the air out too much, so I have to humidify it. And then dehumidify it sometimes. I have to filter the air so it doesn’t stink the house out, and then I have to extract that air, and also pull fresh air in. I only grow 16 kilos a year. But if I could grow more plants, legally, in a poly tunnel in my garden, I reckon I could do twice that for zero energy."
In the U.S. and Canada, legal grows that use over 1 million watts are now common. Greenhouse and open-field cannabis cultivation not only eliminates the wasteful carbon emissions of indoor grows, but the plants act as a net carbon draw, fixing atmospheric CO₂ into plant matter.
Moving cannabis grows outdoors would clearly reduce the carbon footprint created by global cannabis use, said Sutton. "If U.S. indoor grows switched to greenhouses, the energy saved would power all of the residences of Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco – combined – for a year," he said. "If you were to swap all the cannabis grows in California to outdoor grows, you could save double the energy that is produced by every solar panel in the state – twice over."
But even that process has to be regulated properly to minimise harms to wildlife and water. Some of the most renowned weed in the U.S. is grown in California’s Emerald Triangle, which encompasses Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties. Unlicensed outdoor cannabis farmers drench the fields with banned herbicides and pesticides, killing animals and polluting local water supplies. They also steal those public water supplies: Rainfall in California during the May-September outdoor growing season is minimal, meaning water must be diverted from streams and rivers. Cannabis is also a thirsty crop: In 2018, researchers at Swansea University reported that cannabis plants need double the daily amount of water used by wine grapes, and noted that the 2017 Californian wildfires were exacerbated by drought. And in 2015, researchers in California at the Public Library of Science attributed recent droughts to an uptick in unlicensed grows.
The same Public Library of Science study found that unlicensed grows in the state caused "fragmentation of sensitive habitats via illegal land-clearing and logging [to plant cannabis]; burying of streams; delivery of sediment, nutrients, petroleum products and pesticides into streams; surface-water diversions for irrigation resulting in reduced flows and completely dewatered streams, and mortality of terrestrial wildlife by rodenticide ingestion."
Sutton argues that regulation is the answer, saying that "a formal, legal market like we have in Canada creates jobs, reduces crime, and can even enhance the environment," because photosynthesising plants use the energy in sunlight to convert CO₂ and water to sugar and oxygen. "As a firm, we keep going back to nature – we’re currently use co-planting, and worms and nematodes and permaculture and recycling. The best cannabis, for you and for the environment, is natural cannabis," he said.
Colombia is the world's cocaine factory, producing a UN-estimated 1,379 metric tons of the drug in 2017, up by nearly a third from 2016. The country has traditionally acted as a clearing house for both processing of the leaf from into paste and into powder, as well as exportation – thanks in part to its long history of civil war, which left huge swathes of the country under guerrilla and paramilitary control, with weakened state institutions and widespread corruption.
Once coca leaves are harvested (often by children, whose quick fingers earn them about $1.50 USD a day), cocaine paste is made in jungle labs, where workers soak tons of leaves in huge pits filled with toxic chemicals, including lime, sulphuric acid, and later additions of kerosene and ammonia. Acetone, ether, and hydrochloric acid are used to turn this paste into powder cocaine. All these are dumped indiscriminately, killing flora and fauna.
Very little hard data exists on this, as fieldwork is too dangerous in these remote, outlaw zones. In 2017, the UNODC made its best guess at the quantities of chemicals involved, in a study titled: Disposal of Chemicals Used in the Illicit Manufacture of Drugs. "Although scientific evidence as to the exact impact of this process on the environment is lacking, each year it is probable that millions of tons of hazardous waste resulting from cocaine production is released into the environment," the report asserts.
According to a 40-month EU-funded project that ran until 2016, when harvests were smaller, annual cocaine production in Colombia required 200 million gallons of kerosene, 8 million gallons of solvents, 2 million gallons of sulphuric acid, 1 million gallons of hydrochloric acid, and 25,000 gallons of ammonia. All are dumped illegally, whether in forests, drains, sea, or rivers, killing flora and fauna and contaminating soil.
In a different world, coca meant for cocaine could easily be grown as a fair-trade crop with proper environmental standards, similar to how coffee is grown. Profits could be mandated to farmers and governments to develop these regions with schools and healthcare that are lacking today. Cocaine could even be synthesised in a laboratory from scratch.
One of the most significant environmental impacts of coca farming is caused by farmers fleeing eradication teams and planting crops in isolated areas of great biodiversity, said Professor Lilliana Davalos, Professor of Ecology and Evolution at New York’s Stony Brook University. Colombia is one of the world’s most biologically diverse countries, being home to 10 percent of the world's species. But enforcement agencies force farmers into secluded or inaccessible areas, damaging biodiversity in ways that have yet to be measured. "If cocaleros [coca leaf growers] could plant coca without trying to hide it, they might not be forced into fragile areas of great biodiversity," said Davalos.
Yet some of the impacts of the cocaine trade on the planet have been overcooked. In 2008, Francisco Santos Calderón, then vice-president of Colombia, told Britain’s Association of Chief Police Officers that every gram of cocaine snorted by U.K. users contributed to four square meters of forest loss. That claim made headlines for years and was never questioned, but it seems like a bit of an exaggeration. (According to the UN, each hectare of coca can potentially produce 5.6 tons (5,600 kilograms) of coca leaf, which can be processed into 8.4 kilograms of pure cocaine. That's about four times less land-per-gram than Calderón suggested, but doesn't include land cleared to support the cocaine trade.)
In any case, forests are cleared for cocaine production, but focusing solely on cocaine is literally missing the forest for the trees. Illegal cocaine industry has only contributed to only a fraction of the total deforestation in Colombia. In 2017, according to the UN, coca was grown on 171,000 hectares of land in Colombia, a 25 percent increase from 2016 – but that accounts for only 0.15 percent of the country’s land area. In 2016, Davalos concluded that "coca cultivation generates negligible direct or indirect forest loss."
Think about it this way: What does the average person consume more of, cocaine or beef? As is the case in rainforests around the world, present deforestation is primarily caused by cattle ranching, human migration, armed conflict, farming, and mining. "The goal of Calderon’s argument was to associate two bad things: deforestation and coca, as if coca was the only cause of deforestation," said Davalos, adding that the vast majority of Colombia's deforestation was caused by the development of now-abandoned road-building projects in the 1960s.
"That’s not to say to a cocaine user, 'Don’t worry, your habit is doing no harm,'" said Davalos. "But this very specific demonisation of coca as being in some way uniquely evil, and more damaging than other crops – it’s a fallacy. The land used to grow coca is tiny in comparison to pastures, whether productive or not."
The most indiscriminate assaults on Colombia’s natural spaces were carried out by U.S. operatives, who ran aerial spraying missions that dumped pesticides on coca fields from airplanes between 1999 and 2015, under the anti-drug offensive, Plan Colombia. The U.S. initiative aimed to combat cocaine cartels by funding the Colombian military alongside increased U.S. military presence in the country.
The coca crops, which are nearly always grown alongside traditional food crops, were drenched in a super-strength version of Roundup, a herbicide created by Monsanto, which contains a chemical called glyphosate. This is used on millions of normal farms worldwide, but in Colombia ingredients were added to it before it was then dumped out from crop-duster planes, instead of being carefully sprayed or poured gently onto the crops.
Sanho Tree, Director of Drug Policy at Institute for Policy Studies, a U.S. think tank, said, "U.S. forces used a super-potent version of Roundup in Colombia, combined with a surfactant, to make it cling to vegetation better. I saw planes flying over the rainforest in the 2000s, and they released storm clouds of the stuff. They had to fly extra high to avoid sniper fire from guerrillas below, meaning coverage was enormous. Everything was soaked in it."
Glyphosate is used on farms worldwide, in conjunction with genetically modified seeds that are resistant to it. But in Colombia, these indiscriminate spraying flights wiped out poor farmers' crops – food, coca, everything. Most of them then had no economic choice but to go and plant more coca. In May of this year, a U.S. court ruled that glyphosate was known to have caused cancer in U.S. citizens. Monsanto, now owned by the German pharma giant Bayer, is facing more than 9,000 similar lawsuits across the United States.
Coca eradication efforts by the U.S. and Colombian governments over the last few decades have failed to destroy the crop. The spraying campaign began in 1999, but was halted in 2015 over health fears. Smaller, supposedly safe drone-spraying missions began in 2018.
But in March, U.S. president Donald Trump said Colombia was failing in its responsibilities to end coca cultivation, bizarrely claiming that its hardline right-wing president, Ivan Duque, had "done nothing for us." Trump’s rhetoric looks likely to provoke the resumption of crop-spraying there, said Jeffrey Villaveces, Colombia country director for IMMAP, a humanitarian data exchange network.
"President Ivan Duque says it’s now a matter of national pride for Colombia to reinstate mass aerial fumigation using planes – not drones," Villaveces said. "Given the lack of protests at a recent constitutional court hearing to permit the flights again, it looks likely they will resume soon as the peace process falters and crops hit record levels."
So should cocaine users, like meat eaters, shoulder all the blame for the green damage caused by their habit? Steve Rolles, Senior Policy Analyst for British drug law reform NGO, the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, said, "illegal cocaine consumption is not ethically possible. But it is wrong to place the blame on users. All of these problems could be mitigated, if not eliminated, in a properly controlled legal market."
The U.N. says the majority of the world's MDMA is produced by crime groups in the Netherlands, who typically use chemicals shipped from China into the Belgian port of Antwerp. The epicentre of production is in Tilburg, in the southern region of Brabant.
According to the Dutch police, drug production in Brabant has risen sharply over the last 10 years, thanks to the discovery by chemists of a new way to make MDMA, using a chemical precursor called PMK-Glycidate. Until March of this year, it was legal to buy, sell, and import PMK-Glycidate, which was sold at around £40 to £60 a kilo. Each of these kilos can make 500 grams of MDMA, sold at around £1 per gram wholesale – netting the criminals a potential 20-fold profit.
Most MDMA users presume their drug use is harmless for the planet. But drug gangs in Brabant regularly dump the toxic byproducts from labs in parks, streets, and forests, or along the side of the road. To avoid dumping these poisonous byproducts by hand, gangs rope together barrels and jerry cans containing the toxic waste in the back of their vans and then tie one end of the rope to a tree. With the back doors open, they speed off and the containers shoot out the back, leaving thousands of litres of hydrochloric and sulphuric acid and acetone to seep into the earth, contaminating the soil, killing vegetation, and harming animals that contact it.
One senior Dutch police source who manages teams tackling the drugs gangs and who asked to remain anonymous for the purposes of this article told VICE that, in 2018, his teams had to clean up one toxic MDMA (or, to a lesser degree, amphetamine) dump site almost every day across the Netherlands. "We had 292 dump sites last year – and those are just the ones we know about. Some of these gangs just pour it into the drains or the forest floor, and don’t leave the cans behind." The soil is left contaminated as a result, and it costs €50,000 to clean up each site.
Gangs have even started to dump chemicals in streets next to police headquarters, our source told us. “In April, a gang left 1,600 litres of chemicals along a road parallel to the police headquarters near Eindhoven. They first tried to dump the barrels, but for some reason stopped. They then moved on and just poured it along two miles of roads. The smell was overwhelming. One colleague said his skin blistered just from putting up the police tape around the incident."
In December 2018, a huge MDMA lab estimated to be producing drugs with a street value of €3.5 million per week was found and dismantled 200 meters away from the office of Jan Boelhouwer, the mayor of nearby Gilze and Rijen. "I was pretty surprised myself," he told VICE.
"The production of synthetic drugs in this part of Holland is completely out of control," Boelhouwer added. "The politicians in Amsterdam are in denial about the scale of the problem here."
The gangs use a variety of methods to get rid of their waste, which damages flora and fauna through soil contamination. "The dumping in forests that we do see is just a part of it. Gangs approach farmers and make them an offer: 'take €5,000 from us per month and allow us to dump our chemicals in with your pig slurry, and then you can spread it on the land.' If farmers refuse, their children are threatened," Boelhouwer said. Additionally, converted trucks have been found with holes in the floor and chassis to surreptitiously drip chemicals on streets and roads as the vans drive around.
Guy Jones, a chemist at Reagent-Tests U.K., said this is a consequence of drug laws forcing manufacturers to work cheaply and in secret. “Having a regulated production process would improve matters. Pharmaceutical companies don't dump waste in forests – because they don't need to," he said. "They pay a company to take it away and dispose of it legally."
In March, the United Nations banned PMK-Glycidate. As a result, Chinese suppliers are having a fire sale with prices down 80 percent to as low as $25 USD per kilo. Even as this precursor has been banned internationally, new legal options are widely available at a similar or lower price.
Dumping in this way in Dutch woodland is a criminal act, and one that must be seen in proper historical and legal context. The trend towards the use of PMK-Glycidate was triggered by a clampdown on safrole production in Cambodia in 2008, when U.N. drug forces seized and burned 33 metric tons of safrole-rich oil – which offers one of the easiest routes to MDMA.
The oil had been illegally distilled from the roots of a tree known in Khmer as the mreah prew phnom, aka Cinnamomum parthenoxylon, which grows in the western Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia. These ancient forests are home to more than 50 of the world's most threatened species, including the Asian elephant, Indochinese tiger, the Siamese crocodile, sun bears, gibbons, and pangolins. The trees were felled and their roots stripped and then steam-distilled over huge cauldrons, heated by firewood also chopped down from the forest. Four mreah prew phnom trees are needed to produce one 180-gallon barrel of safrole oil. Six non-safrole-containing trees are chopped and burned in the processing of one safrole tree.
This trade peaked in 2008-2009, but as recently as 2015, 3,200 liters of oil were seized in the area, local media reported. Conservation International staff confirmed at the time that “there’s still [safrole] oil coming through Phnom Penh.”
Toby Eastoe, then-project coordinator at Conservation International, told the Phnom Penh Post, “After the seizures, it shifted – so they’d log the trees and take [them] out [of] the forest like any other wood. The [safrole-producing] factories could be located anywhere in the country.”
The circular logic of the drugs war is perfectly illustrated by this process, according to Guy Jones. “Drug laws always drive innovation in negative directions. Chemists were driven towards PMK-Glycidate as a result of the earlier clampdown on PMK and safrole," he said. "They had to go from a one-step chemical process to a multi-step one, meaning more waste, more raw materials and more energy consumed."
Opium poppy grows wild in poor-quality soil with little care needed, but Afghan farmers looking to maximise crops and income have planted it in desert areas, where it demands intensive farming practices and water diversion, resulting in salinated land where few crops can grow.
David Mansfield, an international drug policy consultant, has studied 20 opium harvests in Afghanistan. He says poppy farmers there have "greened" the desert – which sounds positive, at first. But the real story isn’t so simple.
"In Afghanistan, we see ground water being tapped by citizens for the purpose of agriculture. This is at its most acute in the former desert areas of the southwest, where opium poppy is concentrated,” he told VICE. “In this area, more than 300,000 hectares of desert land has been settled and brought under agricultural production over a 15-year period. This is increasingly being irrigated by solar-powered deep wells, which are increasing the rate at which groundwater is falling. With solar, farmers consider the water 'free' and are further exploiting it, running solar in the day and diesel at night to increase flow and bring more land under cultivation."
As newly productive land, Mansfield said there are now vast new areas where the land has been salinated after a portion of the pumped and released water evaporates from flood-irrigated farms, leaving behind bleached, salted earth. Powerful herbicides are commonly used to keep crops weed-free, generally by untrained and unprotected men and children who work the fields. He added that farmers use little to no protective clothing and increasing levels of poisonous nitrates are showing up in the groundwater.
If you're determined to have as clear a conscience as possible while getting high, you can become self-sufficient – by growing your own magic mushrooms, outdoor cannabis, and psychoactive cacti if you’re incredibly patient. Fair trade and sustainable DMT root bark traders exist, but you’ll still need to extract it yourself by using toxic chemicals and risking several years in jail. It's illegal, but it is possible, and the internet is awash with guides and supplies.
Stimulants pose more of a problem. The greenest choice would be to use Chinese-made drugs such as ethylphenidate and phenmetrazine and their analogues, as these are often produced as a sideline by legitimate pharmaceutical firms with better (albeit still-minimal) standards of waste management. All these drugs are illegal in the U.K. and much of the world, and less is known about their side effects than longer-established choices like amphetamine and cocaine.
How you choose to get high, eat, or travel is a complex question of personal ethical standards. But until the flawed moral judgments and bad science that underpins our drug laws are acknowledged – and then dismantled and replaced with formal markets run by elected experts instead of criminals – there will always be avoidable, harmful impacts and projections of blame onto the users.
The environmental damage of drug production is undeniable and of course regrettable. But as experts have said, the swiftest way to remedy this is to rescind our outdated drug laws and formally regulate, monitor and control these lucrative markets.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the source.