Ever wonder how people who take illegal drugs affect the planet?
Let's be frank: Most drug-induced highs for you are kind of a downer for the planet. The conditions under which illegal drugs are produced make it impossible to enforce any sort of clean manufacturing regulations, and the long-standing U.S. government effort to eradicate drugs inflicts its own environmental damage. (Think of the RoundUp herbicide sprayed on 12 million acres of rural Colombia each year.) There are some ways to measure the eco-credentials of various narcotics, though. To do so, we need to take a close look at where each one comes from and compare the ways they're harvested or synthesized.
The powerful stimulants ecstasy and crystal meth turn out to be especially nasty products. The former is made from sassafras oil, which is derived mostly from endangered rain forest trees in Brazil and 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 and pseudoephedrine, which are either extracted from an Asian grass or brewed in frothy vats of molasses. China and India account for half the world's supply of these chemicals, according to the U.S. State Department's 2010 Narcotics Control Strategy Report, and much of the stuff that lands on our shores was probably shipped from halfway around the globe.
Big-time meth chefs in the United States and Mexico purchase the raw material from domestic pillmakers or middlemen, while smaller players may buy cold medicines that contain the chemicals from pharmacies. The facilities that cook up the street drug are a dirty business: In California's Central Valley, law enforcement agencies estimate that 4 million to 7 million pounds of lab waste were poured into canals and on properties between 2000 and 2004. The people who clean it up wear hazmat suits.
Cocaine isn't much better. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that 240 million acres of rain forest have been cleared by coca growers in the South American Andes over the last 20 years. If the DEA's numbers are correct, that represents nearly a quarter of the deforestation taking place in the region. The Peruvian government says that 15 million liters (just under 4 million gallons) of toxic chemicals -- primarily kerosene and 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.
Heroin beats out cocaine in a purely environmental sense, because it uses less farmland: 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 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 -- 20 million acres -- is under cultivation for cannabis, cocaine and heroin around the world, but much more cannabis is being produced on that acreage. From an environmental standpoint, it also has the relative advantage of being produced in large quantities on American soil -- and sometimes consumed very locally -- with fewer "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. Last August, cannabis farmers managed to set off a 75,000-acre conflagration with a cooking fire.
While most of today's drug culture is simply another wasteful frontier of American consumerism, some enthusiastic drug users have proved to be fervid environmentalists. For instance, the peyote-smoking Huichol people of Mexico, who use the natural hallucinogen in religious rituals, even established a protected area for their psychedelic pilgrimages at Wirikuta.