The Harmful Effects of Drug Production

Most of us will have heard of the consequences of drug use – addiction, withdrawal, crime, domestic abuse, disease, and in worst cases—death. Yet, most overlook one significant consequence, which is the environmental effect. Drugs are particularly harmful to the environment.


The cannabis market has been booming for several years, gaining popularity with legalisation in several countries, with an estimated ‘188 million people having used the drug in 2017’.ᶦ In the US, around 70% of the cannabis consumed is grown in California. Cannabis cultivation requires approximately 22 litres of water a day per plant, contributing to water shortages during California’s dry seasons.ᶦᶦ The University of California Davis reported that in a year, around 15 tonnes of carbon dioxide are emitted in the US due to indoor cannabis production, equates to the annual emission of 3 million cars!ᶦᶦᶦ


The use of cocaine, MDMA, and ecstasy has also grown in popularity over the last decade and has been contributing to the escalating climate crisis.


This is not to equivocate cannabis with cocaine, but to draw the distinction between legally harvested and illegally harvested modes of production. Cocaine trafficking’s negative effects on climate change has been studied by researchers following the US crackdown on drug cartels in Mexico and the Caribbean in the early 2000s.ᶦᵛ Devastating amounts of deforestation in Central America are intrinsic to cartel operations. Deforestation alone accounts for more than 20% of global carbon emissions.ᵛ ‘Since 2001, more than 300,000 hectares (about 741,000,000 acres) of forest have been cleared for the cultivation of coca – the plant that produces cocaine.’ᵛᶦ Dr Steven Sesnie found that 30-60% of the annual loss occurred within designated protected areas,ᵛᶦᶦ which likely threatens ‘conservation efforts to maintain forest carbon sinks, ecological services and rural and indigenous livelihoods.’ᵛᶦᶦᶦ Cocaine is being produced at the expense of acres of preserved forestry, simply for profit.

MDMA, the primary substance in ecstasy, produces 30 kilograms of toxic waste per kilogram of the drug produced.ᶦˣ Toxic waste does not only lead to water pollution and destruction of wildlife, but can also prove poisonous to humans as toxic substances can be absorbed through meat or fish consumption.


Safrole is a colourless oily liquid, found in sassafras plants. Sassafras oil is typically used to make toiletries and is ‘a precursor in the production of ecstasy.’ˣ The purest form of safrole is ‘secured from endangered Mreah Prew Phnom trees, which grow in the Cardamom mountains of Cambodia.’ˣᶦ Mreah Prew Phnom trees are cut down to heat distillery vats, where the roots of these trees are boiled for approximately 12 hours to produce sassafras oil.ˣᶦᶦ This is extremely concerning as oil from the vats will often leak into nearby rivers, killing aquatic wildlife. Cutting down these trees does not only pose a threat to aquatic wildlife but also puts cardamom trees at risk, which is a source of income to local indigenous spice traders.


The cultivation, transportation, and disposal of drugs are particularly harmful to the environment. This may be due to the illegality of these drugs, which leaves their production and growth unregulated. Without regulations on production, cultivation wreaks havoc.



ᶦ United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, World Drug Report 2019: 35 million people worldwide suffer from drug use disorders while only 1 in 7 receive treatment (June 2019) < https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/frontpage/2019/June/world-drug-report-2019_-35-million-people-worldwide-suffer-from-drug-use-disorders-while-only-1-in-7-people-receive-treatment.html > accessed 1 June 2021

ᶦᶦ Tim Schauenberg, ‘5 Ways that Drugs Damage the Environment’ (DW, 7 October 2020) < https://www.dw.com/en/drugs-environment-impacts-cannabis-cocaine-opium-ecstasy/a-55177638 >

ᶦᶦᶦ Tristan Burns-Edel, Environmental Impacts of Illicit Drug Production (2016) < https://escholarship.org/uc/item/4w64g29s > accessed 31 May 2021

ᶦᵛ Matthew Taylor, ‘Narco-deforestation: Cocaine Trade Destroying Swaths of Central America’ The Guardian (London, 16 May 2017) < https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/may/16/drug-money-traffickers-destroying-swaths-forest-central-america > accessed 30 May 2021

ᵛ Justine Calma, ‘Cocaine is driving deforestation, climate change, and migration’ (The Verge, 2019) < https://www.theverge.com/2019/10/8/20905186/cocaine-drug-trafficking-deforestation-climate-change-migration-central-america > accessed 27 May 2021

ᵛᶦ Schauenberg (n 2)

ᵛᶦᶦ Steven E Sesnie et al, ‘A Spatio-Temporal Analysis of Forest Loss related to Cocaine Trafficking in Central America’ [2017] Volume 12 Environ. Res. Lett 054015

ᵛᶦᶦᶦ Taylor (n 5)

ᶦˣ Schauenberg (n 2)

ˣ Nick Kettles, ‘The Environmental Impact of Drugs’ (The Ecologist, 2009) < https://theecologist.org/2009/may/19/environmental-impact-drugs > accessed 28 May 2021

ˣᶦ Kettles (n 11)

ˣᶦᶦ Kettles (n 11)

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