How The International Drug War Is Helping To Warm The Planet

A plane sprays coca fields in San Miguel, on Colombia’s southern border with Ecuador, Friday, Dec. 15, 2006. CREDIT: WILLIAM FERNANDO MARTINEZ/ASSOCIATED PRESS
A plane sprays coca fields in San Miguel, on Colombia’s southern border with Ecuador, Friday, Dec. 15, 2006. CREDIT: WILLIAM FERNANDO MARTINEZ/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The prohibition and attempted eradication of drugs can be a nightmare for the climate and environment. Particularly in Latin America, the fight against drug production has led to deforestation, widespread contamination with toxic chemicals, and contributed to a warming climate.

Part of the problem is when drug war policies unintentionally destroy non-drug plants that should be converting CO2 to oxygen and slowing warming. Colombia uses aerial fumigation with glyphosate herbicides, popularly known by the trademark Roundup, to kill coca crops that are used to make cocaine. But glyphosate doesn’t just kill coca. It’s designed to kill any plants it comes into contact with. And since planes have sprayed 1.6 million hectares with clouds of the herbicide between 1996 and 2012 — in the world’s second-most biodiverse country — the amount of unintended plant destruction is huge due to imprecision and human error. The Colombian government received 6,500 public complaints in 2002 alone for destroyed food crops, environmental damage, and harm to human health.

Fumigation is only the beginning of the deforestation. As drug producers are driven from their growing sites by eradication efforts, they go deeper into remote forests and national parks. Drug cultivators abandon land that’s been clear-cut and often poisoned by herbicides to cut down new forests, and they don’t just clear land for coca. The cultivators also need clear land to grow food, and to build roads, houses, and even airstrips. Without access to safe disposal or any regulation to require it, drug manufacturers dump toxic chemical byproducts wherever they can, polluting the land and water.

A report from Count The Costs, an organization that documents the negative impacts of the war on drugs, tallied the devastation: A million hectares of Colombia’s native forests were destroyed for drug crops as of 2000, and 60 percent of illicit crops are grown on newly deforested land. Ten percent of the 20th century rainforest destruction in Peru was caused by drug cultivation.


The deforestation wrought by drug manufacturers could perhaps be used to justify the costs of prohibiting the drug trade — if there was any evidence it worked. But the evidence says it doesn’t. The U.S. spent $666 million on coca eradication in Colombia from 1992 to 1998, and even managed to destroy between 33.5 and 52.8 percent of Colombia’s coca fields. Despite that, Colombian cultivation doubled in that time period.

And Count The Costs’ report found that while Colombia fumigated 130,000 hectares in 2004, coca crops only decreased by 6,000 hectares compared with the previous year. And that’s just in Colombia.

A new report in the journal Science found that as Mexico’s cracked down on the drug trade, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala saw a huge spike in cocaine traffic. And that came with a big increase in deforestation. Typical deforestation rates in one region of Guatemala were around 20 square kilometers per year, lead author Dr. Kendra McSweeney of Ohio State University told the BBC, but “under the narco-effect, we see over 60 sq km per year.”

Legalization could limit the climate impacts of other drugs as well. U.S. marijuana growers largely operate indoors to avoid detection by law enforcement, among other reasons, meaning growers need grow lights, temperature control, and ventilation to keep their plants growing. The requirements of indoor growing cost $6 billion in energy and create as much greenhouse gas as 3 million cars on the road. Unregulated outdoor farms can cause some of the same problems as Latin America’s coca growers, like forest clearing, use of toxic pesticides, and diversion of water. In Washington and Colorado, where marijuana is newly legal, regulations allow outdoor growing, so the impact of legalization will soon be clearer.

Deforestation is a huge component of climate change, according to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report, contributing roughly 17 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. That makes it the third-largest emitter, after the energy sector at 26 percent and the industrial sector at 19 percent.


Legalization of coca wouldn’t eliminate its impact on deforestation by any means. Though it would mean the end of indiscriminate spraying of herbicide in the name of the drug war and end the need for drug producers to operate secretly in environmentally sensitive areas, legal crops contribute plenty to deforestation as well. Palm oil is one example.

An explosion in palm oil production in recent decades has caused major deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia, where much of the production boom is taking place. But because palm oil is a legal product, environmentalists and governments are able to use pressure and regulation to address the problem. In December, Wilmar, the world’s largest palm oil company, committed itself to eliminating deforestation from its supply chain, and other producers have announced similar initiatives.

It may not be for climate reasons, but some Latin American leaders are urging reconsideration of prohibition and the war on drugs. In front of the United Nations General Assembly in September, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina urged legal regulation of drugs, and Uruguay became the first nation to legalize recreational marijuana in October. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos expressed an increasingly-common sentiment when he told the UN that “today we must acknowledge that [the war on drugs] has not been won.”