Bad trip: how drugs affect the environment and climate

    26 Dec 2021

    According to the latest UN data, 269 million people used drugs in 2018. More than 35 million have had health problems because of this. These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg, the real losses from the sale and production of drugs include the massacres of tens of thousands of people, like in Mexico, and colossal corruption, when entire states are subordinated to the drug mafia, like Colombia or Guinea-Bissau. Much less often people remember the colossal environmental damage caused by the drug trade. What is it? Let’s figure it out thanks to Ecosphere.


    The carbon footprint of legal marijuana

    Even 50 years ago, smoking cannabis in Western Europe and the United States could have ended up in jail. But in recent years, the situation has changed – European and American states, one after another, legalize the use of marijuana. Luxembourg was the last in Europe to legalize cannabis on October 22, 2021.

    The number of people using marijuana over the past 10 years has grown by 6.7% from 180 million to 192 million. In terms of the number of consumers, cannabis is second only to tobacco and alcohol.

    Marijuana production is very energy intensive, which means it leaves a serious carbon footprint. According to some studies, already in 2017 in the United States, cannabis farms devoured 1% of the country’s electricity generated. Providing industrial farms, for example in Phoenix or Fairbanks, can take up to 5% of electricity in local networks.

    A 2018 report by consultant New Frontiers on cannabis cultivation energy costs 22% increase in CO2 emissions per kg of production. In numbers, this is 326 kg of CO2 per 1 kg. A popular soft drug is anything but carbon neutral or eco-sustainable.

    Moreover, there are already fears that a large share of the “green electricity” in the United States will have to be spent on maintaining cannabis farms. And they already in 2016 gave emissions of 15 million tons of CO2. These are emissions of approximately 3 million vehicles. It turns out that without reducing the use of marijuana, the success of switching vehicles to electricity will also be limited.


    Water supply problem

    Among other things, cannabis is a very moisture-loving plant. In the United States, up to 70% of cannabis is grown in California. Every day, up to 22 liters of water is spent on one plant. This often becomes overwhelming for river systems, which can dry up completely during the dry season.

    According to government reports, marijuana farm owners often set up production in protected areas. Production wastes – fertilizers, chemicals – are not reclaimed or buried in any way. As a result, the state’s wildlife is already suffering damage comparable to the activities of large industrial companies.

    But it is during a drought that the impact of cannabis on the environment becomes especially dangerous. Over the past 8 years, illegal marijuana cultivation has cost California 12 billion gallons of water. Competition for water has led to outbreaks of racism against the Hmong people of Southeast Asia, who were suspected of stealing water. In some cases, the diversion of water for cannabis farms was so severe that it affected the filling of reservoirs and the water supply of cities, especially small towns. The authorities of some municipalities were even forced to introduce rationing of water consumption.

    Suggestions to limit the supply of water to marijuana farms have poured in. In general, in arid California, the expansion of cannabis production has become the source of a real water crisis.


    Cocaine deforestation

    Cocaine is one of the most popular drugs, with 19 million people worldwide using it. But the consequences of its production, storage and transportation are best seen in Latin America. Colombia has been the largest source of this drug for several decades. The annual production of cocaine, according to UN estimates, exceeds 1,000 tons. And, judging by the fact that the area for growing coca is growing, this is not the limit.

    At the same time, due to the specifics of agriculture in Colombia, farmers are forced to constantly leave the already cleared field for coca production. There are many reasons: rancheros – landowners who raise livestock – often take land with the help of private armies; land is depleted or falls under a crop eradication program (until recently, the country’s authorities liked to spray glyphosate); finally, large companies simply buy it by any means.

    Therefore, although nominally now in Colombia “only” 130 thousand hectares are given for the cultivation of coca, in fact, forests have been completely depleted on much larger areas. For example, in the Putumayo department alone, over 10 years, the forest was cut down on the territory of 20 thousand hectares, and in the Caqueta department – on more than 30 thousand hectares. These figures do not take into account the fact that the forest is destroyed for the construction of warehouses, roads – that is, the infrastructure for transporting cocaine to its consumers.

    It should be noted that the clearing of forests was accompanied by the active use of herbicides. The already mentioned glyphosate has been used as an ideal remedy against pests, parasites, and weeds. Ranchers or palm plantation owners watered the surrounding land with it as often as the Colombian authorities struggled with coca plantations. And the coca farmers themselves were not averse to using herbicides in any case – according to the UN, 12 million liters of herbicides were poured onto fields with coca in Colombia every year. So the area of ​​the contaminated land is likely to exceed a couple of tens of million hectares.

    No less serious problems are associated with the direct production of cocaine in illegal laboratories. The fact is that this requires a large volume of toxic substances – ammonia, acetone, acids, etc. Every year, millions of liters of toxic waste are poured right into the jungle. Studies show that nothing living is able to survive in such polluted waters. Following the destruction of the river biosphere, the turn of forests comes, which leads to a change in their functions as carbon sinks. The problem with this is acute even in countries that consume cocaine. In 2019, after the Glastonburry Music Festival in the UK, high levels of drugs (cocaine, MDMA) were found in waterways nearby. This, in turn, caused great damage to the environment and even endangered the local eel population.


    This story is all about eco-mismanagement on music festivals and the lack of control of illegal drugs in the UK. Let’s check it here.


    However, against the backdrop of environmental disasters associated with oil spills in the Andean region, this is just a trifle.

    After the cartels have made bloody millions from the sale of drugs, these profits must be legalized. Here agriculture comes to the aid of the drug-lords – in Colombia and the countries of Central America, cartel leaders invest in cattle breeding. The forest is being cut down again, but this time the cutting area will increase tenfold. For example, in Peru, which in 2011 overtook Colombia in terms of coca production, an additional 1,500 hectares were cut down for its production. But for large ranches in the Peruvian Amazon, more than 50 thousand hectares of forests were destroyed.

    In Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, from 2001 to 2020, 2.39 million hectares of forests were cut down, 30% due to the activities of drug cartels

    In Guatemala and Honduras, the situation took the most dangerous path – there the interests of rancheros, narcollords and local authorities are closely intertwined. This began in the 1990-2000s: successful police operations against drug delivery channels in the United States through the Caribbean led to the fact that alternative routes were laid through the countries of Mesoamerica. Already in 2011, 80% of American cocaine came from Honduras, Guatemala and other countries in the region. Colombian and Mexican drug dealers, Salvadoran maras and Honduran drug gangs immediately began to cut down the forest. The jungle was preferred. Forests along the Caribbean coast have been particularly hard hit. The reason is the convenience of setting up transport hubs for the transport of drugs in the United States. All this was accompanied by the drive of local peasants from the land, massacres and total corruption. In the end, bribe cases were brought against the presidents in Honduras and Guatemala.



    By the way, more “ordinary” than using drugs, smoking is not eco-friendly. Why? Read the full story here.



    Synthetic footprint

    Waste from the production and consumption of drugs negatively affects the state of the environment not only in the countries of the “Global South”, but also in the most developed countries of the world. The Netherlands, Germany and Belgium have long become intermediate hubs from where synthetic drugs (as well as cocaine) are distributed throughout Europe. The production of 1 kg of MDMA produces an average of 10 kg of toxic waste. The production of amphetamines can be even more toxic, leaving behind up to 30 kg of toxic waste. All of them, in one way or another, are discharged into nearby water bodies, taken to landfills, simply thrown away in inaccessible places or discharged into the sewer.

    The Dutch Institute for Water Research (KWR) has estimated the illegally buried waste of drug production in the Netherlands at several thousand tons. The worst hit were Eindhoven and Amsterdam. Drug traffickers often dumped toxic waste into canals or settling ponds where water is drawn to supply cities.

    Of course, these wastes – ammonia, naphthalene, methanol, ammonia, sulfuric acid, acetone – deal a serious blow to the river biosphere. They are so toxic that they can dissolve any protein in themselves. It was even shown live in Holland.

    Most researchers believe that a real environmental and medical disaster is unfolding under the nose of the city authorities. For example, Oslo’s water supply system contains 237.4 mg of methamphetamine per 1000 inhabitants. The second is German Dresden – 133 mg per 1000 inhabitants. Together with the wastes of drug production that end up in tap water, these substances pose a threat to human life. And it’s not limited to poisoning: this includes damage to internal organs, cancer, etc.

    In some cases, the waste of drug production is mixed with manure, which is used for fertilization. This practice is widespread in Holland and Belgium. It got to the point that the remains of amphetamines are found in insect pests that feed from these fields. However, you should not think that synthetic drugs are a problem for exceptionally rich countries. The countries of Southeast Asia suffer from their consumption and production no less, but even more, since, in contrast to Europe, monitoring and assessment of environmental impact is less developed.


    Opium land

    The cultivation of opium, the raw material for one of the most dangerous drugs in the world, heroin, while having a devastating effect on the environment, is mostly local. Up to 90% of all heroin in the world is of Afghan origin. And most of the area under opium poppy – 224 thousand hectares (76%), is also concentrated in Afghanistan. Myanmar is in second place with 29.5 thousand hectares.

    At the same time, the cultivation of opium fields does not even think to fall. The drug harvest in 2021 is planned at the level of 6,800 tons (8% increase). At the same time, the growth of acreage for opium this year has grown by 37%. Currently, there are about 1.5 million people working in the opium sector in Afghanistan. This is the only field of activity in the country that can truly feed local farmers in a stable way. After the withdrawal of US troops from the country and the coming to power of the Islamist Taliban movement, talks resumed that the cultivation of opium could be prohibited. The prospects for such a step remain unclear: what to do with the millions of Afghans left without a livelihood in a devastated country?

    Experts suggest introducing (by analogy with countries such as Colombia) a program of agricultural substitution of opium for other crops. Even if Afghan peasants agree to this, they will face the fact that the country’s aquifers are rapidly drying up – 3 meters each year. Poor but enterprising people of the country already have to drill wells to a depth of 100-150 meters.

    Against this background, even the pollution of the environment with wastes of opium production looks insignificant. It is scary to imagine what will happen when a catastrophic water crisis begins in the country: Afghanistan can finally become a desert. For the first time, we will have a country that will provide millions of “climate refugees” due to drug production.



    The drug trade is not only a public health and safety issue, it is a major negative driver of environmental change. Deforestation of millions of hectares of land in Latin America due to illegal coca plantations. Billions of liters of toxic waste from drug production, poisoning the Amazon river and water systems in Europe and the United States. Spraying defoliants and herbicides over tropical forests to combat drug planting, desertification in Afghanistan… a really dirty footprint.


    What to do with medical waste? Actually, when we throw away the medicine, we drink it with water afterward. Let’s check how dangerous household medical waste is and what to do with it here.

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