Illegal Drug Trade is Environmental Crisis
Eric Sterling

Every environmentalist concerned about the protection of endangered species, the rise in global warming, or the protection of Caribbean coral reefs must put solving the crisis of narcotics on his or her agenda.

One quarter of all Amazonian deforestation in the 20th century was a result of the demand of the illegal drug trade. Growers of coca and opium, over the past 20 years, have destroyed 2.3 million hectares of rainforest to create new fields for cultivation, according to a recent briefing by Rand Beers, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs. (Click here for information from the State Department.)

Not only are forests destroyed, but millions of gallons of toxic chemicals - gasoline, kerosene, sulfuric acid and toluene - are discharged into the watersheds in the processing of coca leaf into coca paste and cocaine base in jungle "labs." Growers also use pesticides such as paraquat and parathion, in addition to glyphosate used in U.S.-financed aerial eradication efforts.

The State Department deserves credit for identifying this ecological catastrophe. Unfortunately, the environmental consequences of the drug trade are much broader, and are widespread in the United States. Tragically, the prohibition anti-drug strategy the State Department is pursuing won't work to protect the environment.

While the total number of cocaine users has declined in the U.S. over the past twenty years, the estimated 5 million heavy, hard core users - who consume the bulk of cocaine - has not declined dramatically. Total cocaine production in Latin America exceeds 550 metric tons annually. The retail value of the U.S. cocaine market approaches $40 billion annually, according to The White House.

Since I toured Peruvian coca fields in the Upper Huallaga Valley with Members of Congress in 1983, American anti-drug efforts have become ever more grandiose. It is during this period that the deforestation has escalated. We've defeated the 'Medellin cartel' and the 'Cali Cartel,' but the illegal drug trade rolls on.

What many environmentalists have not yet seen is that drug prohibition is a major cause of urban and suburban sprawl in the U.S. and the loss of open space and scarce farmland. All disputes in the $62.4 billion domestic illegal drug trade are resolved violently. (For example, you can't sue the seller of adulterated cocaine in the district court for breach of contract.) Open-air drug markets create threatening disorder on urban streets. The high cost of prohibited drugs leads drug addicts to crime to pay for drugs - prostitution, shop-lifting, car break-ins, check and credit card theft, fraud, burglary, robbery. Even the heavy presence of the police necessary to combat the crime contributes to the threatening environment. These urban neighborhoods have a complete infrastructure - transportation, sewer and water lines, electricity and gas supply, telephone and data connection - and proximity to markets and labor. Suburban development requires these expensive investments. But prohibition-driven crime deters business decision-makers such as retailers and employers from locating in the cities. Where can new home buyers find cheap housing? In remote suburbs with long commutes to the workplace, or in urban neighborhoods that resound with gunfire. The result is more traffic congestion, automotive air pollution, global warming, and sprawl.

In the United States, drug prohibition leads illegal drug cultivators and manufacturers to locate in remote, environmentally pristine areas. Our nation's drug policy, with an emphasis on forfeiture laws, results in drug traffickers clandestinely choosing to put their drug labs and marijuana fields on public lands such as national forests. Illicit manufacturers of methamphetamine generate highly toxic waste, which is simply dumped. Illicit cultivators cut down U.S. forests, cut roads and trails, lay irrigation piping and use fertilizers and herbicides. This fills the watersheds and the aquifers with toxic waste, hazardous chemicals, and silt. These environmental losses would be substantially reduced if the marijuana and drug industries were regulated, licensed and taxed.

What strategy is more likely to protect the environment in the long term? Continuing and intensifying the war on drugs, or regulating and controlling the use, manufacture and distribution of psychoactive drugs?

Eric E. Sterling, an attorney, was counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee from 1979 to 1989, where he was principally responsible for anti-drug legislation and other anti-crime matters. Since 1989, he has been President of The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Silver Spring, MD, a non-profit center that educates the nation about criminal justice issues.
Originally published @

Eric E. Sterling, President
The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation
[email protected]
Tel: 301-589-6020
Fax: 301-589-5056
8730 Georgia Avenue, Suite 400
Silver Spring, MD 20910-3649

Related Resources
Drug War Facts: Environment
Crimes Against Nature
What's Wrong With The War On Drugs: Environmental Consequences
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