Illicit drugs are not only ruining our society but also causing damage to the environment. For more than 50 years, the war on drugs has failed to yield results, and the policies put in place appear counterproductive. The policy framework for fighting drug use has only focused on dealing with illicit drugs’ economic, social, physical, and mental challenges. The enforcement-led approach to eliminating drug use has taken the path of criminalizing users and cultivators of drugs. Often, the environmental damage and cost involved are somewhat overlooked.

In the last 40 years, the U.S. has waged a war on drugs by spending over $1 trillion trying to combat the trafficking of illicit drugs and eradicating and inditing people involved in the activities. In a report featured by the Open Society Foundation, Kendra McSweeney, a geographer and researcher said the conventional “cat and mouse” policies the U.S. has employed on drug use and cultivation need to be revisited. The policies have driven growers, traffickers, and producers into new frontiers leading to deforestation and contamination of sensitive ecosystems like indigenous reserves and national parks.

Drug Crop Cultivation in Ecologically Rich Areas

Drug crop cultivation occurs in remote areas with little governance and infrastructure. The people in those areas have high levels of poverty, which is one reason that drives them to grow illicit crops. Farmers tend to have no other means of earning their living besides being part of the drug trade. The areas where farmers grow drug crops are again ecologically rich and fragile.

The Retrogressive Drug Crop Eradication

A futile approach to eradicating drug crop cultivation only complicates the issue. Attempts are made to break the chain of drug tracking by targeting the first link, the farmer. However, because the demand for illicit drugs keeps rising, misguided efforts only serve to displace production instead of eliminating it. When production seizes in one area because of law enforcement, it heightens in another. This is referred to as the “balloon effect.”

Environmental Costs of Drugs Wars

The war on drugs method of drug crop eradication involves manually uprooting the plants or spraying chemical herbicides. Both of these methods leave environmental damage in their wake. A good example is Colombia’s fumigation program that we funded.

The glyphosate-based herbicide used in aerial sprays is a non-selective substance meaning it indiscriminately kills any plant it gets in contact with. The herbicide sprayed in Colombia was a mixture of glyphosate and a surfactant. The aim of using a surfactant was to enhance the toxicity level of glyphosate. Using the additive allows the herbicide to penetrate deeper into the leaves, thus making it extremely lethal to plant life.

Often referred to as the “poison rain,” Colombia’s aerial drug crop sprays destroyed thousands of indigenous licit crops, plants, and forests. Colombia has over 55,000 plant species of which 75 percent are unique to the area.

Besides the damage to plant life, aerial herbicide spraying also contributes to the death of animals. Cattles that eat fumigated pastures lose their hair, and fish and chicken die because of drinking contaminated water. Fumigating vast areas of land destroys animal habitats thereby depriving them of food resources. This could cause the extinction of endangered animal and plant species unique to Colombia.

The Counterintuitive Law Enforcement in the War of Drugs

Law enforcement compels drug crop farmers and traffickers to push their activities further into the last frontiers. The farmers clear primary forests and disrupt habitats of endangered species. Drug interdiction policies are firsthand disastrous, they cause the drug crop perpetrators to shift their attention to other destructive activities when barred from cultivating the illicit crops. In Honduras for example, farmers cut down vast expanses of forests and turned them into palm oil-plantations and cattle pastures in the mid-90s.

The Drug Policy Project’s Director at the Institute for Policy Studies, Sanho Tree once said, “The drug war has tried in vain to keep cocaine out of people’s noses, but could result instead in scorching the lungs of the earth.”

The environment is a casualty of the drug war, it’s under threat in many ways. In the past 50 years, the war on drugs seems to have been counterproductive in attempting to stop environmental harm created by drug crop cultivation and the drug trade.

Fighting drug use isn’t a one-hand affair; we cannot leave the government to solely deal with the problem. Individuals also have a role to play too. It may seem impossible to stop drug use, however, we should focus on reducing the demand for illicit drugs. That means nurturing sobriety in the society. And, yes! The fight starts with you by giving up on drug use and addiction. Enrolling in a drug rehab treatment program can help begin the journey to recovery. As many people transform their lives and transition from drug taking to a drug-free life, it will surely pave the way to reduction of environmental damage.




Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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