Which illegal drug is best for the environment?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
May 4 2010 7:15 AM

The Greenest High

Which illegal drug is best for the environment?

Marijuana.
Which illegal drug is best for the environment?

Let's say I were the type of person who would go to a party where an assortment of recreational drugs were being used. Would it matter, so far as the environment goes, which one I took?

Let's be frank: Most highs for you are kind of a downer for the planet. The conditions under which illegal drugs are produced make it impossible for the government to enforce any sort of clean manufacturing regulations, and the long-standing "War on Drugs" inflicts its own environmental damage. (Think of the RoundUp herbicide sprayed on 120,000 hectares of rural Colombia each year.) There are some ways to measure the eco-credentials of various narcotics, though. To understand how various drugs affect the environment, we need to take a close look at where each one comes from and compare the ways they're harvested or synthesized.

Ecstasy and crystal meth turn out to be especially nasty products. The former is made from sassafras oil, which is derived mostly from endangered rainforest trees in Brazil or Southeast Asia. In 2008, the U.K.-based Flora and Fauna International helped law enforcement confiscate 33 tons of oil distilled by criminal gangs from more than 8,000 chopped-down trees at the Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia. (That's enough to make 245 million Ecstasy tablets.) Meanwhile, crystal meth in the U.S. market comes from the chemicals ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, which are either extracted from an Asian grass or brewed in a frothy vat of molasses. China and India account for half the world's supply, according to the U.S. State Department's 2010 Narcotics Control Strategy Report, and most of the stuff that lands on our shores was likely shipped from halfway around the globe. Big-time meth chefs in the United States and Mexico purchase the raw material from domestic pill makers or middlemen, while smaller players may purchase cold medicines from pharmacy shelves. The facilities that actually cook up the street drug are also running a dirty business: In California's Central Valley, law enforcement estimates between 4 million and 7 million pounds of lab waste were poured into canals and on properties between 2000 and 2004. The people who have to clean it up wear Haz-Mat suits.

Cocaine isn't much better. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency estimates that 2.4 million hectares of rainforest have been cleared by coca growers in the South American Andes over the last 20 years. If the DEA's numbers can be trusted, that represents nearly one-quarter of the deforestation taking place in the region. The Peruvian government says that 15 million liters of toxic chemicals—primarily kerosene or diesel—are dumped in Amazonian watersheds every year during the production of coca paste. Finally, the drug has to make its way to North America by plane, boat or narco-sub, and this may involve a gas-guzzling route via South Africa and Europe.

A better choice for those into the hard stuff may be heroin. Though most of the supply comes from poppy-growing regions all the way in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia, some have argued that opium is a better crop for the environment than local alternatives. Switching over to rice or rubber would require farmers to cultivate quite a bit more land just to get the same income—an argument that might apply to South American coca growers as well. But the main reason heroin beats out cocaine has to do with land use: According to the 2009 U.N. World Drug Report, one square meter of opium poppies nets 23 doses of heroin, while a square meter of coca plants yields just six lines of cocaine.

Which brings us to cannabis, the greenest fix of all. The same U.N. report finds that a square meter of marijuana cultivation can support 250 dose units of the drug. About the same amount of land—200,000 hectares—is under cultivation for cannabis, cocaine, and heroin around the world, but the cannabis is getting a heck of a lot more people high. For users in the United States, it also has the relative advantage of being produced in large quantities on American soil. About half of our marijuana supply comes from domestic sources—with minimal "drug miles" and a slimmer carbon footprint.

There are some major environmental downsides to marijuana, however. At least half of the world's yearly crop of 50,000 metric tons is cultivated in subtropical Mexico, including protected areas in the mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental, where the Lantern himself has spotted more than a few gardens within park boundaries. In California, growers in Sequoia National Park have cleared native vegetation, diverted streams, and applied fertilizers and poisons on public land. In August 2009, cannabis farmers managed to set off a 75,000-acre conflagration with a cook fire.

While most of today's drug culture is simply another wasteful frontier of American consumerism, some enthusiastic drug users have proven to be fervid environmentalists. For instance, the peyote-eating Huichol people* of Mexico even established a protected area for their psychedelic pilgrimages at Wirikuta.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

*Correction, May 4, 2010: The original described the Huichol people as "smoking" peyote.  The drug is taken orally and not inhaled.

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