The latest World Drug Report, by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), is once again brimming with important data and analysis, including on the impact the illegal drug trade has on the environment. The document, however, provides an inherently incomplete account of the drugs-environment connection for a basic reason: it fails to consider the role of drug prohibition itself in fueling the environmental harms caused by the drug trade.
For the first time, UNODC devoted a section of its flagship report to describing the “nexus between drugs and the environment.” The report found that the environmental effects of illegal drug supply and use are fairly small overall when compared to the enormous global impacts of legal sectors such as agriculture.
However, the report also underscored that illegal drug production and trafficking can have intense environmental effects at the local level, due to deforestation and the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and heavy chemical processing and toxic waste, which can severely contaminate the fragile ecosystems where the activities take place. The report does not make the point explicitly, but many of the drug-related environmental harms are taking place in countries of the global South, and disproportionately burden populations whose health and livelihoods are most immediately vulnerable to polluted and degraded ecosystems.
The new World Drug Report highlights deforestation associated with illegal coca cultivation and significant soil and water pollution due to dumping of wastes used in drug manufacturing processes. More research has been devoted to the drug trade’s environmental impacts in cultivation areas in countries including Colombia, Peru and Bolivia than in transit zones (in countries such as Guatemala and Honduras, for example). But the report notes that the transit zone impacts may exceed cultivation-related forest loss when the indirect activities catalyzed by drug trafficking are also taken into account. These include money-laundering investments in agriculture or cattle ranching, which demolish forests.
The connection between illegal drugs and deforestation also relates to climate change, since the degradation and destruction of forests are also major sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, forests absorb roughly one-third of the carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels, so halting the loss of forest ecosystems will be crucial to help mitigate the impacts of climate change. This is especially important for communities that rely directly on forests for their livelihoods and that are acutely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as storms, flooding and drought.
The report draws on available research to provide estimates of the carbon footprints of plant-based drug production, including cannabis (indoors and outdoors), coca growing, and cocaine production. Citing previous research in Colombia, the report notes that the carbon footprint for coca leaves (0.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilogram of coca) appears to be only a fraction of the carbon footprint associated with legal crops such as green coffee beans (7 kg CO2e) and cocoa beans (20 kg CO2e). The manufacturing and waste generated by cocaine processing, however, drives the carbon footprint much higher, to an estimated 590 kg CO2e per kg of cocaine.
Pairing UNODC’s global cocaine production estimates with research on coca growing and cocaine manufacturing in Colombia’s Catatumbo and Putumayo departments, the report indicates a 75 percent increase in the carbon footprint of illegal cocaine production between 2010 and 2020. The UN body estimates cocaine’s carbon footprint in 2020 at roughly 1.17 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. By comparison, the global loss of tropical forests releases about 4.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year.
The report also links drug-related environmental impacts to specific policy interventions, including crop eradication, dismantling of drug labs, and alternative development projects. Crop eradication, UNODC concedes, may actually increase deforestation by displacing farmers to new areas. The report does not mention how drug interdiction plays a similar role by encouraging new crop cultivation and drug production to compensate for losses due to interdiction operations along the supply chain. For example, a new study by the Transnational Institute uses UNODC’s 2020 data on Colombian coca and cocaine to estimate that roughly 50,000 hectares of coca cultivation were “lost” to interdiction operations, stimulating new production to compensate.
Given the continued expansion of illegal drug markets globally, and the concentration of cultivation, manufacture and trafficking in some of the world’s most biodiverse and ecologically vulnerable landscapes, UNODC’s effort to document the impacts of illegal drug markets on the environment should be applauded.
Although UNODC does touch on some of the policy dimensions of the drugs-environment nexus, there’s a huge one that the UN report misses entirely: how the global drug prohibition regime itself stimulates the illegal drug trade’s harms to the environment. The reality of prohibition as the undergirding drug policy worldwide is absent from the World Drug Report’s analysis, so the implications of prohibition for the environment are nowhere to be found.
In effect, UNODC misses the forest for the trees, focusing on the impacts of specific drug production and trafficking activities (and even some policy interventions), but failing to analyze how drug prohibition generates the massive profits that continually nourish the illegal trade and fuel the environmental destruction that the report describes. Under prohibition, farmers elude authorities by moving further into ecological fragile forests, while traffickers seek remote frontiers to carve out landing strips and launder profits in environmentally destructive agribusinesses.
A telling symptom of the UNODC’s analytical blind-spot regarding prohibition occurs early in the report, when connections are made to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The report mentions 11 of the 17 SDGs, but neglects Goal 16, “Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions,” which includes promoting the rule of law and equal access to justice; reducing illicit financial and arms flows and combating organized crime; and reducing corruption and bribery.
Progress toward these governance targets is fundamental for addressing climate change and other environmental challenges, which require a modicum of institutional capacity and state legitimacy. But prohibition—with immense drug profits that empower criminal organizations to intimidate, corrupt and co-op government institutions—erodes state capacity and legitimacy, thereby undermining the prospects for the sustainable land management that will be required to halt forest loss and other environmental harms.
Even if UNODC itself cannot recognize the reality of drug prohibition and its fundamental role in generating environmental harms, the latest World Drug Report should serve as a wakeup call to governments and civil society around the world: drug prohibition is not only undermining human health and security, it is fueling ecological destruction and accelerating climate change.