Beyond Addiction: The Environmental Cost of the Drug Trade


Drugs are illegal for a reason. That’s what conventional wisdom tells us, even as we acknowledge moral gray areas like marijuana legalization and widespread prescription drug usage.

The thing is, those reasons are more complicated than most of us might have guessed. Besides the obvious personal and societal harm that drug abuse and trafficking can cause, these are hardly the only factors at work. As it turns out, the environment might be another all-too-silent victim of our collective fascination with narcotics.

Below I’ll lay out just how it is that the drug trade has come to impact the natural world in countries across the world – and how the US might be importing more of the damage than we may have guessed.

Colombia, Honduras, Peru, and Uzbekistan

The cocaine trade spans the globe, but Colombia’s cocaine traffickers have been a particular nuisance. For example, about 21.5% of coca fields in Colombia were planted where primary forests once stood. Similar problems have been reported in Honduras, Peru, and Uzbekistan.

But deforestation isn’t exactly anything new, is it? We’ve been hearing about the vanishing rainforest for years. A much less publicized problem in these countries is the use of mycotoxins, which have been in play since the 1980’s as a (mostly failed) way to slow down the spread of illegal narcotics. The only problem, naturally, is that mycotoxins have been found to cause harm in humans and animals alike.

Given how closely the Food and Drug Administration oversees the use of mycotoxins – they actually qualify as chemical warfare agents – it goes without saying that any vector that could introduce these chemicals into everyday life should be looked at as a threat – and as a challenge to find better solutions.

Brazil and Cambodia

Deforestation has also been linked to the manufacturing of ecstasy. A primary ingredient in ecstasy is sassafras oil, which is often derived from endangered varieties of plants in tropical countries. In Cambodia alone, trees are felled by the thousands to produce the oil needed to satisfy the world’s demands for the drug.

The developed world has made progress in attempting to slow these destructive tendencies, but even their methods call attention to how difficult it can be to actually make a positive change. In 2008, Flora and Fauna International aided law enforcement in the confiscation of some 33 tons of distilled sassafras oil. It was certainly a blow to the local drug trade, but the trees that made that oil were already long dead.

The United States

Many of the above problems manifest in the United States as well, though they sometimes take different forms. America’s national parks, for example, while blessedly protected from wholesale deforestation, have nevertheless become havens for marijuana farmers and methamphetamine manufacturers. Their felling of trees will almost certainly never reach Colombia-levels of seriousness, but when a stroll through a national park might accidentally result in your stumbling across somebody’s meth lab, you know there’s a problem.

Meanwhile, prescription drugs, a seemingly more benign substance than most of the ones you’ve just read about, can also introduce some equally insidious problems. There’s little doubt that the United States is rather fond of prescriptions; we fill more than 4 billion prescriptions every year, and research out of South Carolina found that as much as 40% of that medication may never actually be taken.

Instead, it finds its way into municipal water supplies and landfills, where it has the potential to influence the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It might not sound like a problem until you realize that about 65,000 deaths every year are attributed to bacteria that are no longer susceptible to our treatment methods.

If you’re looking for an easy answer to these problems, you’re not going to find one. All we can really do is aid the people we care about in finding the help they need to deal with their dependencies. If demand goes, so, too, will the supply.

Naturally, the reality is a great deal less straightforward. As long as the United States continues to jail addicts instead of treat them, none of these problems are going to get any better. But that’s a discussion or another time and place.

Daniel Faris
Daniel Faris is a freelance writer from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. You can join his alter ego over at The Sound of Progress for discussions of progressivism in music, politics, and culture.