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Is The War On Drugs Killing The Environment? | The War On Drugs

Colombia’s fumigated around
2 million hectares of land with financial and military support
from the United States. But many people, locals and
Ecuadorians living across the border, have reported being poisoned. Drugs don’t just affect
the people taking them. In 2018, it was reported that the vast amount of cocaine
used across Europe was ending up in rivers at levels that could affect
the behavior of freshwater eels. While no hyperactive,
slightly overconfident eels were ever actually observed, it’s important to remember
that while we talk a lot about the human and economic
cost of the war on drugs, this conflict also takes its toll
on the environment. From the jungles of South America to the sewer systems
of the Netherlands, we’re looking at
the environmental impact of the global illicit drug trade, separating the myths from the facts, and asking who bears
the responsibility. [The War on Drugs Show] [Drugs vs. the Environment] The rainforests of Colombia and Peru are considered to be the second most
biodiverse natural habitat on Earth, home to 10 percent
of the world’s species. But they’re also home to most of
the world’s cocaine production. And because coca farmers are scared
of the police and military, they’re forced to grow their crops
deep inside the jungle. Usually, the farmers give in, but on many occasions,
they resist the eradication and confrontations take place. On those occasions, we have to use
tear gas and whatever else. This has led to
a persistent narrative that coca production is responsible for the destruction
of the rainforest, a claim that’s been repeated
by commentators from Colombia to the US and Europe. But what has emerged
is a pattern of drug traffickers laundering the profits they make
from the cocaine trade by buying up acres of the Amazon
for cattle ranching. Wherever drug trafficking
nodes are established, what you see is it’s almost
as though a bomb has gone off and created these concentric rings
of absolute devastation of forests and dispossession of small farmers
and indigenous people. This form of damage to wildlife
has even earned its own name, narco-deforestation. While this is a snappy title and has been seized on by politicians
to shame drug users, it’s actually a bit misleading, as the actual environmental impact
comes from farming and has nothing to do with the
production of the drugs themselves. However, one thing
that is absolutely true is that making cocaine requires
some pretty nasty chemicals. In this area, they use
what they call “the solvent method,” or “the Colombian method.” They use a 3,000 liter tank
to process the coca leaves. This process leads to faster results. It’s difficult to gather exact data,
but estimates are clear that every year,
tens of millions of gallons of kerosene, solvents, ammonia,
and hydrochloric and sulfuric acid are used to create cocaine, all of which end up getting
dumped illegally in the jungle. Of course, it’s also
important to remember that cocaine is used
as a medical anesthetic, and hundreds of kilos
are produced legally each year, largely by countries like the UK
and the Netherlands, with none of these
environmental impacts. I have a machete, I work in
banana fields, sugar cane fields. But sometimes there are no jobs and I take what I can get. I’m not killing anyone or bothering
anyone, I’m just working for food. But it’s not just
the drug traffickers who are dumping toxic chemicals
into the rainforest. Between 1994 and 2015, the Colombian and American militaries sprayed tons of the chemical
pesticide glyphosate onto the Amazon in an attempt to destroy coca crops. If the government comes along
and eradicates your crop, they may be spraying glyphosate,
a known carcinogen, on your family, your animals,
and your neighbors. So it comes at great risk, but the needs of small farmers
is often so great that they’re willing to take
that risk for the economic return. In 2013, Colombia had to pay Ecuador
$15 million in compensation for the severe health problems the spraying was causing
to farmers along the border, and the spraying was suspended. But under pressure from Donald Trump, smaller drone-spraying missions
were resumed in 2018, and Colombian politicians
routinely threaten to restart the larger
spraying campaign, turning the war on drugs
very literally into a war on nature. It’s not just the rainforests
of South America that are threatened
by the war on drugs. The Netherlands is generally
more famous for its semi-legal weed than its exotic,
unspoiled wilderness. But the country is also the global
leader in manufacturing MDMA, and this is having a serious
environmental impact. This watercourse supplies
the city’s canals with water. Synthetic drugs have already
been dumped in it several times. Here they dumped 10 large barrels
containing hundreds of litres each. Drugs waste flowed directly
towards where people live. The scale of this problem
cannot be underestimated. Dutch police sources told VICE that in 2018, they were having to
clean up a new drug waste dump almost every single day. This problem is so widespread, they’ve even had to
coin a new word for it in Dutch— drugsafval. One of Brabant’s worse ever
dumping of drugs happened here. It was a huge barrel and 1,000 litres
of drugs waste spilled into the soil. In a large area, the soil was dug up,
the trees died and were removed. These trees have absorbed drugs waste and the leaves curl up
and they’ll die in the summer. Because it’s illegal industry, so they cannot go to
a regular dump, a legal dump, they dump it in the forest,
in the water reservoirs, or they dump it on the street
bit by bit. These are toxic chemicals. People run into it
when they walk in the forest, so that’s a huge problem
which has not been solved. Once again, there’s no particular
reason MDMA production needs to be harmful
for the environment. Many synthetic drugs are manufactured
by pharmaceutical companies in the Netherlands every year. And because they’re produced
within a regulated market, the waste materials can be
disposed of relatively safely. The only factor that drives
illicit drug production underground is the fact it’s illegal. This year, we suddenly had three, four, five
drugs waste dumpings a week. In the last 10 years,
there has been such an increase that it has become the
main part of my job. But even where drugs are legalized,
environmental issues can still arise. The expanding
legal cannabis industry in the US has come under frequent scrutiny
for the amount of energy it consumes. To grow one kilo of cannabis
in an inside grow room produces more than
4,500 kilos of CO2. That’s roughly the equivalent
of driving a car across America 11 times. So this is “the green mile.” These are some of our mother plants. This is what we use
to create new plants. And so when we look for genetics,
we look for good, big, and fast, those three things. It’s so exciting. It’s totally traceable. The state knows exactly how many
plants we have in our system. They know when they’re harvested,
how much was harvested. They know everything about it. It’s a manufacturing facility. We manufacture marijuana. One of the main problems here
is that due to security concerns, many state laws that
permit cannabis growing require it to be grown inside, which is obviously
far more energy intensive than growing it outside. Indoor marijuana cultivation
uses a lot of energy because we’re creating a fully
synthetic agricultural environment. We’re taking what would typically
be done in an outdoor setting, and we’re moving it indoors. One hundred percent of the lighting
is synthetic lights, so we put in really
high-powered lighting, and that creates a lot
of the energy profile. And then the other piece
of the major energy profile is the HVAC systems that have to run
to create that uniform environment for heat and humidity. The problem is obviously
even worse on the black market, where people
are forced to grow inside for fear of getting caught. Some estimates state that
legal indoor cannabis growers consume one percent of America’s
total electricity supply, about equivalent to 1.7 million
average size homes every year. Jason currently runs
a handful of indoor grows, like this one in Sonoma County. Like many industry veterans, he knows how to operate
inside the law, outside the law, and in between. He started out on the black market, then gradually switched to selling
to licensed medical distributors. But the medical client base
is shrinking quickly, as dispensaries move into
the recreational market, where Jason isn’t licensed yet. If this keeps continuing, then we’re going to have to operate
this place as a black market grow to continue to pay
for the legal grow. However, this isn’t so much
of a cannabis problem. It’s more of a America needs
to get off fossil fuels problem. Cannabis production represents a small percentage of US
agricultural energy consumption. But it gets undue attention because of the way politicians
and sections of the media get a bit hysterical around
anything to do with drugs. This hysterical coverage is a shame. The war on drugs has meant
we’ve historically missed out on the potential environmental
benefits of industrial hemp, which can make everything
from cement to sneakers. It also ties into important aspects
of how we talk about both the climate crisis
and the drug trade and whose responsibility
they are to fix. Coca growers grow coca
in protected areas. They are driven there
by supply reduction programs that eradicate coca in the place where
they originally wanted to grow it, which are the more conventional
growing areas. And so the only reason
that coca becomes a problem in terms of delicate
environmental spaces is because that’s where growers are
pushed through eradication campaigns associated with supply-side reduction
policies in the war on drugs. Ecstasy users are often intelligent,
highly educated young people who take a pill at a festival, but
have no idea what’s behind it. The most important thing
I can do about this problem now is to demonstrate
its effects on nature and hope young people think,
“Shit, we don’t want this.” Illegal drugs can be bad
for the environment, not because they’re drugs, but because they’re illegal. This is systemic. All of these products
could be produced, transported, and consumed
in much safer, greener ways as part of a legal, regulated market. We’d like to congratulate drugs for winning the war on drugs.
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