Eco side effects of drugs

Green Lifestyle

Illegal drug use has a considerable social impact on individuals, friendships, and families – and also for the wider world. Here’s an eye-opening rundown of the environmental impacts of growing and making illegal drugs.


Opium is made from the buds of poppies.

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Some people enjoy coffee, alcohol, smoking, and perhaps even illicit drugs on a daily or weekly basis – often choosing to ignore the health implications of these habits, such as smoking, which costs Australians $670 million in hospital costs annually.

However, what is not so widely discussed is the environmental impact of cultivating the raw ingredients needed to produce addictive substances.

Meanwhile, the use of illicit drugs is increasing – for example, the use of crystal meth, or ice, more than doubled in Australia between 2010 and 2013.

There are options to choose sustainably-grown coffee, and some tobacco plantations are managed with the environment in mind, but don’t expect any care to the environment to have been taken during the production of illicit substances.

Understanding the environmental damage that arises from illegal substance abuse may prove yet another reason for some to decide to quit these destructive habits.

Habitat Loss for Ecstasy

Although ecstasy is created in a lab, its production relies on sassafras oil derived from the bark of tropical trees. This leads to the destruction of around 500,000 wild trees annually; a particular issue in Cambodian rainforests that are home to more than 80 species threatened with extinction. Ecstacy (or MDMA) production is a highly wasteful process as 10 trees are needed to produce a single barrel of sassafras oil. Another issue is the lack of appropriate waste disposal from distilleries that refine the oil, leading to pollution of local water supplies.

Cocaine and Climate Change

Columbia produces more cocaine than anywhere else, but this has a devastating impact on its forests. A UN report on the Environmental Effects of Coca Cultivation in the region highlights that 47,000 hectares of forest were converted to coca crops in one year with 15 per cent of new crops grown on previously forested land. This is bad news for levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as a hectare of Andean forest stores 195 tons of carbon, which is released once the trees are cleared. Deforestation is a significant contributor to climate change, responsible for an estimated 20 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions. The impact of soil erosion and agricultural chemicals also means that reforestation is unlikely once coca is cultivated in an area, so the damage from cocaine production is a long-term problem.

Growing Water-intensive Marijuana

California has experienced water shortages in some areas due to the large quantities used to support illegal cannabis farms. An average marijuana plot with 1,000 plants uses up to 19,000 litres of water a day. Without a permit, this water siphoning strains water sources and the species they support, with the threatened Coho Salmon dwindling as a result. The large quantities of fertilisers used to promote marijuana growth for drug use yields brings another problem, as once these agricultural chemicals enter the water supply they cause eutrophication, a form of water pollution that encourages algal growth and kills other aquatic life. Finally, the use of rodent poisons to protect the plants is taking its toll on other wildlife, with evidence that Fishers and Northern Spotted Owls have suffered as a result.

Poppies in the Golden Triangle

Opium production increased by 22 per cent last year in the area known as the ‘Golden Triangle’. Here, illegal opium – not the legally-grown opiates for hospital-strength painkillers – is 17 times more profitable to grow than rice. The centre of the triangle, Myanmar, is the world’s second largest producer (after Afghanistan) of poppies for making illegal heroin, where opium production increased by 13 per cent last year, at an estimated 870 tonnes of opium produced a year. Deforestation and water pollution are the two main eco-issues; at its height around 163,000 hectares of land was devoted to growing opium. Forest clearing takes place to make more land available, which not only leads to habitat destruction, but also has implications for soil erosion and climate change. The removal of trees reduces soil stability, so the soil and its nutrients are washed away leading to less fertile soils, and consequently flooding and contamination downstream. Meanwhile, tree loss reduces the capacity for the uptake of carbon dioxide from the air, but also releases more carbon when the trees are burned, increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide and its potential to raise temperatures around the globe. As poppies are no longer grown using traditional methods to fertilise the soil and deter pests, the need for artificial fertilisers and pesticides has increased, with the runoff polluting local water supplies.

Polluting Crystal Meth

Another problem in the US is the production of crystal meth, with most of the supply coming from California and Mexico. This time it is the hazardous waste created from methamphetamine production that destroys the surrounding environment. Not only is a toxic gas released while it is cooked, but lethal meth waste is often dumped in fields, woodlands and rivers, polluting these areas and placing their plant and animal life at risk of poisoning.

Where drugs hit hardest

While the environmental impacts are pretty hard-hitting, where illegal addiction hits hardest is when people’s lives are affected.

If you, or someone you know, are concerned about addiction to illegal drugs, contact DrugInfo in Australia by calling 1300 85 85 84, and they can direct you to support or treatment in your local area.

Families of drug addicts need support too, so don’t hesitate to get in touch with Family Drug Support Australia for support.

The author, Amy Wacholz, works for the addiction treatment not-for-profit organisation Steps to Recovery. For more info on the environmental damage caused by human addictions, check out their solutions-based site, here.