How the Drug Trade Threatens the World’s Ecosystems

Reader Contribution by James White

For an increasing number of Americans, the writing is on the wall when it comes to climate change. We have achieved scientific consensus, and the international community has finally recognized the shared responsibility that this problem represents.

Even so, skeptics remain who argue that accelerating climate change is neither humanity’s fault nor our responsibility.

What might be a little less taxing for the human imagination is the fact that we constantly affect the natural world around us in smaller and more easily observable ways. And one of the unexpected ways this happens concerns the worldwide illegal drug trade.

Let’s take a quick look at some of our drugs of choice and how they bring harm to the world’s already-fragile ecosystems.


Let’s ignore for a moment that 51 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization; that’s a debate for another day. We’re going to focus instead on some of the unintentional collateral damage of our fondness for cannabis.

Among the casualties are America’s national parks – particularly those in the Western US. Sequoia National Forest, located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, is reportedly a popular haunt for some of Mexico’s drug traffickers who wish to stay under the radar. Their presence constitutes a risk to protected forests, which are often cut down to make room for staging areas and even runways.


But even cartel presence on protected land pales in comparison with the wholesale deforestation in Colombia. The thriving cocaine trade has taken a significant toll there, where it’s estimated that about 21.5 percent of the country’s coca fields were created by cutting down primary forests.

The cocaine trade spreads environmental damage other ways as well; in Peru and Uzbekistan, chemical agents known as mycotoxins have been in use since the 1980s in an effort to eradicate illegal crops and curb the spread of drugs. The problem is that these chemicals are known to be harmful to both humans and animals. The unauthorized use of mycotoxins constitutes a breach of the Biological Weapons Convention.

Prescription Drugs

Let’s take a moment to explore a problem that lives a little closer to home: in our medicine cabinets, to be exact. Antibiotics have done amazing things for our quality of life, but they also pose a significant risk to us any time they’re disposed of improperly, which happens all the time.

Research out of South Carolina indicates that, of the 128,000,000 prescriptions filled in the state each year, about 40 percent of it is never taken and eventually finds its way into the water table after people either flush them down the toilet or throw them out.

The damage goes far beyond “mere” water pollution; the problem actually exists at the cellular level. Medication in the water supply has the nasty habit of creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a phenomenon that results in a reported 65,000 deaths per year in the US.

A Shared Responsibility

This has been just a brief look at some of the ways that the chemicals we use to alter our bodies and minds may also alter the world around us. For a more comprehensive look, Clarity Way’s newest infographic (portion of the infographic pictured above) is well worth a look.

This isn’t about fear mongering or beating the Zero Tolerance drum. Drug policy is a complex issue, and one that will likely challenge us for a long time to come.

In the meantime, smaller battles can be won every time we recognize a new way that our habits hold the world hostage.

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