The Environmental Impact of Drugs Are we turning a blind eye to the damage methamphetamines, heroin, cocaine and opiates are wreaking on the natural world?
We’re getting better at coming to grips with the social costs of letting drug abuse go unaddressed in America and across the world. More so now than at any other point in our history, we understand how opiates contribute to harder drug use and why wildly inconsistent marijuana policies across the states are keeping useful medicine out of patients’ hands.
But the environmental impact of humanity’s collective mishandling of drugs and drug policies are a little more difficult to tabulate. Even as we push ourselves toward greener living, we’re turning a blind eye to the damage methamphetamines, heroin, cocaine and opiates are wreaking on the natural world around us. As with many of our other manufacturing processes, the resources required to process or refine these substances comes at a heavy price.
Opiates, Heroin and Deforestation
You probably know heroin and opiates are both derivatives of the poppy flower. Whenever there’s a profit motive involved for pharmaceutical companies, the cultivation of the poppy for pain relief is legal. In other cases, as in the production of heroin, processing opium is quite illegal.
Whether for legal or illegal drug production, the environments where poppies thrive best are inherently more sensitive from an ecological standpoint. Opium plantations are especially common in limestone-heavy, mountainous regions in Laos, Afghanistan, Myanmar and other countries.
The greatest threat opium processing poses is illegal logging and widespread deforestation to clear the land required for the crops. And wherever a critical mass of forest gets removed, the surrounding areas become more susceptible to drought, erosion, landslides and flooding. In other words, the land becomes uninhabitable to humans and a wide variety of animals, too.
It’s becoming clear, thanks to greater awareness and more complete scientific study, that the 48 million individuals who seek help with dependency in an average year are outweighing the benefits of opiates. Now that there’s an environmental component to the conversation, we have even more reason to hold the guilty parties accountable and bring the right kinds of help — like universal mental health access — to the large portion of our population that’s suffering.
Cocaine and Chemical Herbicides
The coca plant is another all-important component in the global drug trade. It, too, has an outsized and potentially devastating impact on the natural world. In their efforts to tamp down on illegal coca plantations, local law enforcement often relies on aerial crop-dusting to drop herbicides and other biological agents onto vast tracts of suspected farmland. The goal is to destroy existing illegal farms and discourage farmers from setting up shop again nearby.
But the collateral damage is almost unthinkable. While the spraying might be an effective way to deal with these pirate coca plantations, it also imperils the success of perfectly legitimate and legal crops, including corn and beans. This kind of indiscriminate herbicide use can throw sensitive forests into chaos or destroy them outright. Local populations of animals, as well as human beings, may get displaced as they seek out suitable food supplies and farming areas again.
And there are many other vectors for harm here, too. These eradication efforts also distribute harmful chemicals into the water table and delicate food chains. Fish and small mammals feed larger animals — and when poison enters the food chain at the bottom, it tends to work its way to the top. Concerned parties in Ecuador and elsewhere have been ringing alarm bells about spray-based eradication efforts for years over worries it’s causing illness and catastrophic population loss in local species.
Methamphetamines and Environmental Toxins
Unlike heroin and cocaine, methamphetamine is not a plant derivative, but an entirely artificial substance. Producing it requires a host of noxious and dangerous chemicals that can devastate the environment. The separate components of meth throw off the nutrient balance in the nearby soil to such a degree that plants can’t grow there anymore — and when it enters the water table, aquatic animals and fish can die out in huge numbers, potentially ruining the ecosystem for the foreseeable future.
Our fields, streams and rivers — and even our forests — are common dumping grounds for meth production byproducts, or are themselves host to the manufacturing process. It’s not uncommon for hidden labs to spring up beyond city limits or to take place in mobile homes, boats or other vehicles. Wherever the “cook” takes place, the lingering liquid and gaseous wastes leave a long-lasting environmental footprint that often resists official cleanup efforts.
Calculating the Global Footprint of Drug Abuse
Now that we better understand the moral and environmental implications of drug use and our traditional approaches for reducing it, many voices in the conversation think it’s time to put punitive measures and “wars on drugs” behind us. Addiction is a disease, and must receive treatment at the social and psychological levels — not with more stigma and misdirected outrage — if we’re to come to terms with, and ultimately start turning back the clock, on the harm it’s doing to the world.