The Environmental Impacts of Recreational Drugs

by Rebecca Gutteridge

The vast majority of us consider the environmental impacts of our bus or car ride into college, try to reduce food waste, and recycle – then why the cognitive dissonance when it comes to drugs?

The legality surrounding drugs often means they are sourced through friends, dealers or the dark web, removing the consumer from the process of manufacturing and transporting the drug to them. Unfortunately, many often don’t want to consider the repercussions for the communities involved in sourcing our good time or the environment, as it can be seen to defeat the objective of said “good time”.

This excuse is under strain. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the impact of drugs on our environment if we hope to reverse climate change and limit the rise in global temperatures to below 1.5℃ and protect our local ecosystems.[1] With a plethora of issues such as deforestation, pesticides, air pollution and the carbon and human footprint of the drugs trade, it is not tenable to consume drugs at our current rate.

Ecosystems are coming under increased strain from the production of cannabis; more than $5bn of weed –legal and illegal– was reported to have flooded the market last year.[2] Banned pesticides used in the illegal Californian cannabis trade are taking a catastrophic toll on the local ecosystem. At one illegal cannabis farm in California, the compound carbofuran (similar to rat poison) was discovered by inspectors, who stated that “it is incredibly toxic. A quarter-teaspoon could kill a 600-pound black bear”. From their expertise, “just a tiny amount can kill a human”, and mentioned that “it remains in an ecosystem for a long period of time”.[3] 90% of the Californian Mountain lion population and 85% of fishers have been exposed to dangerous levels of rodenticide (rodent pesticides).[3] More than 1360kgs of waste was also found at the same Cannabis farm after it was shut down. Aside from the pesticides, cannabis also guzzles water– one plant requires six gallons of water (two gallons more than one energy-saving dishwasher load). The plant also admits toxic levels of ground-level ozone, contributing to air pollution and impacting human health.[4] An average of 220 of these illegal weed sites are raided yearly by the Forestry Service; this is estimated to be only half of the actual number.[4]

Could legalisation be the answer? Legal farms are monitored closely and are required to submit plans for mitigating air pollution.[4] In spite of efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of legal weed in California, they have failed to tackle the staggering 472 tonnes of annual electricity-related carbon used in its production –that’s enough to power 92,500 homes.[4] Bureaucratic barriers also mean many growers are unlikely to go legal, and the industry will thus remain largely unregulated.[4]

Soil erosion and pollution of waterways from MDMA are major problems to the environment. Closer to home; after Glastonbury Festival 2021, scientists found “dangerous” levels of MDMA and cocaine in the river Whitelake in Somerset, UK, due to public urination: damaging river life. The damage is forecasted to “derail” eel conservation efforts for years to come.[5] A study from The University of Naples Federico II showed that drugs such as cocaine are also excreted into wastewater and often improperly disposed of by being flushed down toilets.[6] The study suggests that these compounds may also be making their way into our tables when we eat contaminated fish and eel.[6]

The compounds in MDMA and cocaine are highly damaging to the environment. The Glastonbury findings and eel studies reflect that the story of a quick high with few consequences is a fallacy we tell ourselves to excuse the environmental and social destruction of our habits.

[1] IPCC report, https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/.
[2] Roberts, Chris, Forbes, ‘It’s Gonna Be A Bloodbath’: Epic Marijuana Oversupply Is Flooding California, Jeopardizing Legalization’
https://www.forbes.com/sites/chrisroberts/2021/08/31/its-gonna-be-a-bloodbath-epic-marijuana-oversupply-is-flooding-california-jeopardizing-legalization/.
[3] Westervelt, Eric, NPR, ‘Illegal Pot Operations In Public Forests Are Poisoning Wildlife And Water’ https://www.npr.org/2019/11/12/773122043/illegal-pot-grows-in-americas-public-forests-are-poisoning-wildlife-and-water?t=1650187711984.
[4] Michaelson, Andrea, Smithsonian Mag, ‘The Cannabis Industry Is Not as Green as You’d Think’ https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/cannabis-industry-not-green-youd-think-1-180973659/.
[5] ‘Glastonbury Festival: Traces of drugs found in river at site’ BBC, 2021,
< https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-somerset-58710377 >.
[6] Katz, Brigit, Smithsonian mag ‘Cocaine in the Water Is Hurting River Eels’ https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/how-cocaine-water-harms-european-eels-180969421/.

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