April/May 2017 Monthly Mosaic: Is the War on Drugs a War on the Environment?

Share This!


The War on Drugs has a complex and multi-layered relationship with the environment, often bordering on a full-scale War on the Environment. Drug war policies are frequently overtly damaging to the environment, such as the massive environmental destruction at the hands of government agencies using dangerous chemical pesticides to eradicate crops, and prohibition policies that in many ways incentivize environmental destruction. The good news is there are sensible and environmentally sustainable solutions to all of these problems; the better news is that the drug policy reform movement is already finding policies that support the intersection of the social and environmental crises we find ourselves in.


Often demanding 24-hour indoor lighting rigs, heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems at a multiplying number of grow sites, America’s $3.5 billion legal cannabis industry is one of the nation’s most energy intensive. In 2008, 1% of U.S. electricity production — enough to power 3 million homes — was devoted to legal cannabis production, as was 2% of the electricity consumed in Canada. In Washington and California, cannabis cultivation accounted for 3% of total electricity use. Some form of medical or adult use cannabis is now legal in 29 states and Washington, D.C., and laws continue to liberalize (a hearty congratulations to West Virginia!). As the markets continue to grow and reach capacity in each state, electricity use is likely to increase. In Denver alone, there was a 72% surge in energy demand in the two years post-legalization, and the rise in power use by cultivators from 2012 to 2014 accounted for roughly half of Denver’s overall increase in energy consumption. In 2014 alone, legal grows in Colorado used energy equivalent to that consumed by 35,000 households. Thanks to decades of prohibition, there has been little incentive or ability for cultivators to establish energy efficient practices. Stigma keeps neighbors and communities in fear that the the very smell of cannabis will attract crime and harm children. On this basis alone, many local governments have banned outdoor cultivation outright, while others are only permitting outdoor grows in greenhouses. Indoor operations often use high-intensity bulbs which generate a lot of unwanted heat that then necessitates the use of air conditioners and ventilation systems. These energy costs quickly add up and energy bills can represent 30% of the total cost of an operation. That said, many cultivators don’t want to change the practices they know work. There is a growing sentiment within the industry that environmentally safe and energy efficient cultivation practices are non-starters. Many cultivators prefer energy-intensive indoor grows for a variety of reasons, and many fear that energy efficient practices might affect the quality of their product. There is, however, a burgeoning movement for greater efficiency. But making the switch to sustainable technologies isn’t simple, especially when cultivators are accustomed to doing things the same way they’ve always done. High intensity lighting has long been the standard in cannabis, but only because prohibition has long blocked the development of more efficient solutions. As more states have legalized, we’ve seen incredible advances in alternative lighting technologies specifically designed for cannabis, but encouraging people to switch is no easy task. One solution, while costly, looks promising in the long run. LEED is an agency specializing in energy efficiency building construction, and Tantalus Labs out of Vancouver is the first to approach warehouse cultivation from a sustainability perspective. Solatube and LED sun-capture technologies are not only offering energy efficient solutions for cannabis, but for all indoor agriculture. Visionary leaders, like the Resource Innovation Institute and The Cannabis Conservancy, are also driving energy efficiency research that prohibition has long prevented. And, some places, like Boulder, Colorado, are beginning to require indoor cannabis cultivators to invest in 100% renewable energy technologies.


Over the last 50 years, international drug policies largely have focused on drug crop eradication to crack down on the supply and production of drugs. These methods of crop eradication have devastating effects on the environment and on human health. One popular chemical used in eradication campaigns is glyphosate, a broad-spectrum, non-selective herbicide, that is popularly marketed under names such as Roundup, Rodeo, and Pondmaster. Any plant that is exposed to a sufficient amount of glyphosate will be killed. Though the U.S. government claims that the chemical agents used in aerial fumigations pose no significant health risk to humans, conflicting evidence comes from countless reports by local people and a range of academic studies. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization recently classified glyphosate as possibly carcinogenic. Other studies suggest that Roundup can disrupt key hormonal processes in the human body, negatively impact pregnancies, and possibly even cause genetic damage. Acute effects of Roundup exposure can include breathing problems and severe irritation of the eyes and skin, among other symptoms. Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Thailand have banned the use of chemical agents — such as glyphosate — in efforts to destroy drug crops. However, Colombia permits aerial fumigations of drug crops using a chemical mixture primarily consisting of the herbicide glyphosate. Spraying millions of acres of land with a herbicide designed to kill flora indiscriminately is concerning no matter where it takes place, but it’s particularly alarming in Columbia, the world’s second most biodiverse country and home to approximately 55,000 species of plants, a third of which are unique to the country. In addition to short-term loss of vegetation, aerial fumigations can have a long-lasting impact on plant life. The Amazon has a fragile soil ecosystem, and farmers report that areas which have been repeatedly fumigated are either less productive or yield crops that fail to mature fully.


From Australia to California, Southeast Asia to Central America, one thing is clear: prohibition and the increased militarization of enforcement pushes producers further into remote, protected forests. California grows 60% of U.S. cannabis, so it’s particularly unfortunate that prohibitionist policies in California have led to the destruction of protected habitats and the diversion of rivers. Toxins flow up-stream through the food chain, so the rodenticides that guerrilla growers have introduced into the clear cut forest groves of Mendocino County are poisoning keystone species that keep the ecosystem in balance. Pesticides, chemical fertilizers, gasoline from generators, and untold tons of refuse are left behind after growers move on — or after the crop is eradicated by law enforcement agencies. Prohibition policies don’t support the clean-up efforts after a bust, however, and until the passage of California’s Proposition 64, it was left to community members to hike into the forest to try and remedy the unforeseen environmental impacts of the Drug War. Cannabis isn’t the only drug being illegally produced in U.S. National Parks. In multiple states, the environmental impacts of meth labs have led to the closure of forests and further destruction of sensitive ecosystems as producers try to avoid the detection of law enforcement. The production of one pound of methamphetamine generates 5-6 pounds of toxic waste. Whether dumped in forests, rivers, or into municipal waste streams, these chemicals are incredibly toxic to the environment, and soil contaminated by these chemicals is nearly unrecoverable, and must be incinerated. However, because the chemicals used in production are highly volatile, forests can be at an increased risk of destructive fires in the event of either an explosion resulting from a lab or post-production dump.


Ending prohibition alone will not guarantee that the environment is protected; we must actively ensure that sensible drug policy includes environmentally sustainable drug policy. While it’s difficult to imagine what that would look like in a future world where all drugs are legalized, the cannabis industry can offer a few insights into the obstacles we may someday have to overcome. As with any commercialized drug, legal cannabis packaging and supply chains pose a major threat to the environment. Mylar, a plastic used extensively in cultivation rooms and retail sales, is nearly impossible to recycle, and only 3 facilities in the U.S have the capacity. Vapor pens, made of plastics, nickel, aluminum, and more, are designed to be thrown into a landfill. The industry is already looking at ways to tackle these challenges. Many companies, such as W Vape, now offer take-back programs that will recycle used products, and a company called Restalk has found a ways to turn cannabis stalks and other waste from cannabis cultivation into new paper packaging material. As we begin to see glimpses of a prohibition-free world, it’s ever more important to consider the impacts that the movement will have on the environment. Will the rise in western “psychedelic tourism” repair or destroy sensitive ecosystems? Will increased interest in peyote and ibogaine lead to the extinction of a sacred medicine in it’s natural environment? Will the commercialization of cannabis fill oceans and landfills with toxic plastics and disposable vape pens? As we chalk up wins against prohibition, it is up to the drug policy reform movement to widen its lens to include healing the environmental impacts of the Drug War. After all, it’s only sensible!


Interested in learning more about these issues? We have some great resources to get your started. In fact, we have so many, we made a separate blog post for them. Read more about the wide variety of intersections between environmental policy and drug policy here.


The War on Drugs is an international travesty. This section of the Monthly Mosaic, co-sponsored by SSDP’s International Outreach Committee, will highlight some of the top drug policy reform news from around the world. Bolivia: Negotiating with Growers, Bolivia Forges its Own Approach to Coca Production “The new coca law nearly doubles the area for legal cultivation of coca in Bolivia to 22,000 hectares, or nearly 55,000 acres. It legitimates the existing 20,000 hectares of coca fields that have been informally permitted since Morales, a former coca farmer who has been the head of the Bolivian coca grower’s union since 1996, was elected president in 2006.” Burundi: Drug Users Say They Need Medical Prescription Rather than Being Arrested “The Burundian Alliance against HIV/AIDS and for Health Promotion (ABS) organizes from this 17 April, a two-day meeting with the decision-makers on HIV/AIDS and harm reduction for People Who Inject Drugs…People who inject drugs are 28 times more likely to get infected with HIV than other people…HIV prevalence among people who inject drugs in the Sub-Saharan region averages 30%…Currently, Africa accounts for more than 70% of the Global AIDS epidemic with 91% of all HIV positive children in the world living in Africa.” Canada: Trudeau Unveils Bill Legalizing Recreational Marijuana in Canada “While the federal government will license and regulate growers, each of Canada’s provinces will need to decide exactly how the drug will be distributed and sold within its boundaries.” China: China Vows to Intensify Drug War “In October 2016, President Xi Jinping met with Rodrigo Duterte, the President of the Philippines who is responsible for the mass slaughter of people allegedly involved with drugs. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that Jinping’s government would ‘[support] the new Philippine government’s efforts in drug control’, among other security issues.” Indonesia: UN Support Sought to End Death Penalty in Indonesia “Indonesia’s human rights groups are bringing the country’s controversial capital punishment into the global spotlight after demands to abolish it back home had fallen on deaf ears…President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s administration had so far executed 18 death row drug convicts” Ireland: Medicinal Cannabis Seized from Mother at Dublin Airport “Customs officers have seized medicinal cannabis at Dublin airport, brought into Ireland by a woman looking for access to the drug for her young daughter…The drug, which is illegal in Ireland, is available under a special compassionate access programme, if prescribed by a consultant. No consultant in Ireland will currently prescribe the medication to Irish patients, which Ms Twomey says can help ease Ava’s epileptic seizures.” Mexico: Surge in Drug Gang Violence Leaves 35 Dead in One Weekend “Battles between gangs have increased in the area following the arrest last year of Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, who was extradited in January to the United States.” New Zealand: Drug Law Reform Needed to end Māori Over-Incarceration “‘Our criminal justice system has been failing Māori for decades and we’re not seeing any sign of improvement despite reports over decades highlighting these failures,’ said Ross Bell, Drug Foundation Executive Director.” North Korea: North Korea Began Mass Crackdown on Drug Offenders Last Month “According to Asia Press’ sources based in North Hamgyong and Ryangang provinces, anyone with a drug record is being sent to disciplinary labor camps.” Philippines: Criminal Case vs Duterte Filed Before International Criminal Court “Lawyer Jude Sabio accused Duterte of being a ‘mass murderer’ and asked the international court to prosecute him over his involvement in the so-called Davao Death Squad.” Trump Invites Rodrigo Duterte to the White House “Mr. Trump had a ‘very friendly conversation with Mr. Duterte,’ according to a statement issued by the White House…It said that the two leaders ‘discussed the fact that the Philippines is fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs.’” South Africa: South African Court OKs Marijuana for Home Use “The ruling struck down part of an old law that prohibits private and personal use of marijuana. The ruling still has to be solidified by parliament and pass through the constitutional court, which could take up to two years. Switzerland: Swiss Aim to Shape International Drug Policy “Switzerland’s reappointment to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs ‘strengthens its presence in a key international body and allows it to take part in actively shaping the development of global drugs policy,’ the foreign ministry said in a statement on Thursday.” Tunisia: Tunisia Parliament Votes to Ease Harsh Drug Law “Tunisia’s parliament voted on Tuesday to ease the country’s harsh law on drugs, in a move that could see offenders like youths caught smoking marijuana escape jail terms.” United Kingdom: Psychoactive substances: Tough new law drives drug trade underground “The act has succeeded in hiding the problem, but arguably exacerbated it by pushing production and sales of the most dangerous substances underground.” Uruguay: Uruguay to Sell Cannabis in Pharmacies from July “Uruguay will begin selling cannabis in pharmacies from July, the final stage in the country’s pioneering regularisation of the drug.


Do an SSDP DARE and get points on the SSDP Chapter Activity Tracker!
  • Share the Monthly Mosaic on Facebook or Twitter using #MonthlyMosaic. (10 points)
  • Write a paragraph in response to the Monthly Mosaic, and email it to Emory to be included in a blog post. (15 points)



Each Monthly Mosaic is edited by Kat Murti and Emory Basso. This issue also features contributions by Katie Stone, Rachel Wissner, and Sarah Merrigan. Each month, SSDP’s Diversity, Awareness, Reflection and Education (DARE) committee publishes the Monthly Mosaic, a newsletter dedicated to exploring intersectionality and the War on Drugs. Previous issues have covered topics such as domestic violence, trans awareness, Black Lives Matter, and women’s unique experiences with the drug war. The DARE Committee strives to promote inclusivity within the SSDP network, and facilitate collaboration and engagement with presently underrepresented perspectives, individuals, and movements. In order to ensure that the Monthly Mosaic more intentionally and meaningfully reflects these values, the DARE committee is pleased to invite members of our student and alumni network to submit ideas for upcoming issues.