A few serious tweaks to global drug policy could have positive and lasting effects on the global environment.
The issues of illicit drug use and the degradation of the Earth’s environment are global in scope and may not at first glance appear to be related. But the policies we are using to tackle the cultivation and trafficking of drugs are not only failing, they are deeply counterproductive – not least because they are accelerating our planet’s ecological crisis.
For forty years, the main focus of drug policy has been to destroy crops and chase down traffickers. This has sometimes even been done in the name of environmental protection, to justify destroying drug fields carved from rain forest.
Yet it would hard to conceive of a drug policy regime that is more damaging for the environment. In response to pressure from law enforcement, drug farmers and traffickers must push their operations deeper into the world’s last frontiers, clearing primary forests and endangered habitats from the Amazon to Myanmar to California. Global drug prohibitions keep prices high and allow traffickers in particular to reap huge profits, which they launder in the illegal and highly profitable exploitation of resources in and around their drug transit hubs: trafficking in timber and endangered wildlife; harvesting animal parts like shark fin and fish bladder; engaging in illegal gold mining and clearing land for cattle or oil palm production.
This ongoing cat-and-mouse game is an ecological as well as a human tragedy. As long as the global drug policy regime continues to focus on punishing farmers, traffickers and users, these ecological disasters will multiply. The current agenda serves some countries better than others. Countries in the global South have been paying a huge ecological and human price for drug policies driven primarily by affluent nations of the global North. This disproportionate burden carried by poorer countries includes lost economic opportunities, pollution and health problems caused by defoliants, the enriching of militaries and elites, cities ravaged by violence – not to mention the steep environmental costs.
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By Kendra McSweeney is a professor in the Department of Geography at Ohio State University and author of “The Impact of Drug Policy on the Environment.”