Recreational Drugs And The Rainforest

*WARNING – this post talks about drugs and touches on drug use. I am in no way encouraging/discouraging the use of drugs, but rather looking to educate myself and others on the overlooked aspects of the world of drugs*

So, you’re probably aware that pretty much everything you do has a negative impact on the planet – whether it’s buying a bottle of water or turning on a light. But have you ever considered the damage done by that line(s) you did at that house party last weekend?



For those that don’t know, cocaine comes as a white powder (usually) and is a powerful stimulant. This is generally snorted for quick passage to the brain. It is known for creating feelings of hyper-alertness, euphoria, confidence, and increased sex-drive. It’s sounds quite benign when described like that, but it is a Class A drug and highly illegal! Cocaine use can lead to heart failure, erosion of your septum, anxiety, and depression.


How is cocaine produced?

Cocaine is derived from leaves of the coca plant, which is native to the Amazon Basin. From the leaves, the coca paste is extracted which is then purified into cocaine. This paste extraction happens in one of two ways – both ways involve the use of kerosene (jet fuel) and sulphuric acid! To purify the coca paste, more sulphuric acid is used, it’s filtered, and then neutralised. This produces the iconic and highly sought after white powder – just some leaves and jet fuel!

Environmental Impacts:

The UK is the biggest consumer of cocaine in Europe! Each gram (1g) of cocaine, destroys 4m2 of destroyed rainforest. That’s a scary amount of deforestation. Just imagine how many square meters of rainforest uni students blow through each year (pun intended). The rainforests are one of our last remaining defences against climate change and they are being lost at an astounding rate. Trees act as a carbon store, so the removal of these massive forests accelerates the build up of carbon in the atmosphere and subsequently the changes in climate.

Columbia is the largest producer of cocaine in the world. Columbia is also home to quite a lot of the world’s most ecologically diverse and fragile habitat – rainforest. Due to the clandestine and very illegal nature of cocaine production – the producers are reluctant to do it in areas that are easy to get to. So, coca growers and processors are forced deep into the jungle – often, into areas previously unmolested by humans. Here they cut down vast swathes of the rainforest to plant their coca crops. The most effective and efficient method of forest clearance is ‘slash and burn’. This is exactly what is says on the tin – they slash the forest up a bit and then set it on fire! Often the critters that were going about their day are still present and are frequently killed by the fires. The rainforest soils can only support a few harvests before the soil is too degraded and more rainforest needs to be removed. Not to mention all the other forest that has to be removed to build roads to transport their goods. The cocaine trade was responsible for half of Columbia’s deforestation in the 1990s.

There is a lot of demand for cocaine, across the world – high demand needs a large supply. The coca plants are given a helping hand during growth by the addition of pesticides and fertilisers! The rainforest is a fragile ecosystem, it’s diversity comes from the poor quality of the soil – the plants etc. have to compete for resources, so there is a high diversity of very unique organisms. When fertilisers are added to a system like this, it removes the competition and a few species begin to dominate. This changes the whole structure of the forest and is not a good thing for the creatures that used to live there. Pesticides is pretty self explanatory – they kill insects and do not discriminate (insects are arguably the most important part of any ecosystem). Habitat loss and degradation is the leading causes of species extinction. We are currently losing species at a rate 1000-10000 times faster than the background extinction rate (what you would naturally expect).

No such thing as cruelty-free, organic cocaine (unfortunately).



Marijuana is a Class B drug that is  derived from a plant. These plants are from a family called Cannabacea – different species in the family result in different kinds of  highs when ingested or smoked. Despite teenagers the world over adorning themselves with iconic symbol of the stoner (the weed leaf), the part that is generally smoked is the buds or flowers. The buds (and sometimes, leaves) are dried out ready for use. The buds are used as they have a higher concentration of THC (the stuff that gets you high) than the rest of the plant. The high that you get from THC is a general feeling of well-being and relaxation but that’s not to say it’s without negative effects – some people experience anxiety and paranoia.

The use of THC and all of it’s parent products have been linked (often anecdotally) to relieving, and sometimes curing, all kinds of ailments – including Multiple Sclerosis, Cancer, Chronic pain, and many other health problems!






How is it produced?

Marijuana is a plant. It grows and is then harvested. But due to it’s illegal nature and high demand, it’s not exactly holistic farming. Cannabis plants require hot and humid conditions with plenty of nutrients in the soil. It is often grown in plantations or intensively in indoor systems both illegally and legally. Either method requires huge amounts of inputs in the form of pesticides, fertilisers, and water to yield a successful crop.


Environmental impacts:

Some (legal and illegal) marijuana is grown on plantations. Cannabis plants are very thirsty – growing one plant use 36 litres of water. A large plantation of these can mean disastrous drop in water table levels and have dire consequences for wildlife. Many of the illegal farms use rodenticides to protect the crops and equipment from being nibbled – this has resulted in a huge number of endangered mammals dying in California as a result. The same problems apply here as with illegal coca growing, as it isn’t allowed farmers find places to do it that they won’t be noticed/found. This is often in remote and untouched wilderness or, sometimes, in a protected area. These areas are then cleared for production, roads, and subjected to chemical inputs. Most of the world’s marijuana is grown in South and Central America, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. These are all regions with fragile ecosystems, and often equally (if not more) fragile sociopolitical systems.

A lot of marijuana is grown indoors under artificial conditions – heat and UV lamps are used to create the conditions necessary for peak cannabis plant performance. This requires a whole lot of energy to do.  It is estimated that 1% of the total electricity consumption in the US is used for marijuana growing (illegal and legal). That might not sound like a huge amount but if you think about how much electricity the whole of the US uses, it’s quite a lot.  This, in turn, generates a lot of carbon emissions – growing 1kg of cannabis generates the same emissions as using 2346 litres of petrol. So, for a 1 gram bag of weed, the emissions would be equivalent to leaving a lightbulb on continuously for 20 days. If you’re a regular consumer, this would really add up over a year.



Obviously, people who are shooting up are probably not concerned with the environmental impact that their high is having but here it is anyway. Heroin is a Class A opiate, derived from poppies – similar to the bright red flowers that we use to commemorate fallen soldiers. Side effects of heroin use include: a coma, respiratory failure, choking, and death.

A field of red poppies in bloom

How is it produced?

Heroin is produced from the resin of the poppy flower seed pod after the flowers have been pollinated and produce seeds. The seed pods of the poppies are sliced so that the resin can be collected and dried. First the opium resin is processed into morphine. This is done by mixing the resin with boiling water and calcium carbonate, this separates the organic stuff from the good stuff. The morphine pulp is separated and reheated with ammonia, it is then filtered, boiled again and shaped into bricks. To produce heroin, the morphine is heated with acetic anhydride for 6 hours – it then goes through many steps of purification.


Environmental impacts:

Poppy crops are usually grown in freshly deforested areas of Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Laos. Much of the erosion, drought, and landslides that have occurred in recent year in these areas can be attributed to these illicit agricultural activities. Much like the other substances covered, poppies are grown with the use of fertilisers and pesticides in ecologically sensitive regions. This is not good. Processing heroin is a pretty nasty business using some pretty serious chemicals. Without regulations and appropriate waste disposal, these chemicals are just discarded into the environment. Why not, eh? But as you can imagine, this is not a good thing for the residents of the forest etc.

A green forest

Afghanistan produces ~90% of the world’s heroin which has it’s own direct environmental impact. But it is also thought that the heroin trade is the primary source of funding for the Taliban rebel group, and that the environmental (and social) impacts of the war are incredibly far-reaching. War in the region has destroyed at least half of the forests there. Now, I’m not very knowledgable about the political instability and war of Afghanistan, but I think I can safely say that a large portion of the fault falls on us in the ‘western’ world for this. Anyway, heroin is an environmental minefield (quite literally).



If you have seen Breaking Bad then you will be familiar with this substance. For those yet to see it (and also those that have), meth is a Class A drug that can be smoked, swallow, or injected. It is a highly addictive drug giving a feeling of hyper-alertness and exhilaration but can also make the user feelings of paranoia, confusion, and aggression. Methamphetamine use can have a number of side effects including: brain damage, kidney damage, lung damage, gastrointestinal problems, a coma, and death.

How is it produced?

Producing meth is a long process so I’m just going to list some of the ingredients:

  • Acetone (nail polish remover)
  • Anhydrous ammonia (fertiliser)
  • Ephedrine/Pseudoephedrine (cold medicine/diet pills)
  • Hydrochloric acid (very corrosive)
  • Lithium (found in batteries)
  • Red phosphorous (found in explosives)
  • Toluene (found in brake fluid – very corrosive)
  • Sodium hydroxide (for dissolving roadkill – very corrosive)
  • Sulphuric acid (toilet cleaner – very corrosive)


Environmental impacts:

Meth production is less of an immediate risk to the rainforest than all of the other drugs I’ve covered here, as it isn’t plant-based. Meth production is a very much lab-based endeavour.  But this doesn’t mean that the environment is safe in this instance – oh, no! Every 1 kg of meth produced, generates 5 kg of toxic waste. This waste is dumped wherever is convenient for the very busy producers, often somewhere that you wouldn’t want to come across some toxic waste, like a stream or a forest. This pollutes waterways and soil, and can be lethal to many organisms. The fumes from an active meth lab have also been known to kill surrounding trees, pretty nasty stuff.


Legal = better?

Countries all over the world are beginning to legalise marijuana, following the shift in public opinion and the research stating that it really isn’t that evil after all.  Legalisation won’t solve the problems associated with these substances (just look at alcohol and cigarettes) but when they are legal you can regulate them. It just makes sense really. The amount of abuse generally goes down, people going to prison for holding a small amount stops happening, and the government gets to tax it. It’s a win all round (except for those who deal in drugs). However, just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean that there’s not going to be any illegal production and sale of it. But this illegal market will be a fraction of what it currently is. The resources and police hours freed up from hunting down drug dealers could be put to a more worthy cause. The possibilities are endless for governments with all the money saved/gained with drug legalisation!

A person holding a joint filled with cannabis.


The ‘War on Drugs’

In my opinion, the War on Drug is  just throwing good money after bad, quite literally. The War on Drugs hasn’t actually stopped drugs getting anywhere. Cocaine is still pouring out of South and Central America, and you can get it easily in any country across the world. So, what was the point? It has been said that the War on Drugs is nothing but a thinly veiled excuse to murder and incarcerate people of colour. The War on Drugs achieves nothing than criminalising existence for poor people of colour. I think many states in the US are so reluctant to legalise cannabis as it would men that they would have to stop putting black people in into their privatised jails (modern day slaves).

On top of the clear social depravity of the War on Drugs, it generates it’s own negative environmental impacts. The main method of combatting drug crops is by spraying the area with herbicides. This not only kills the target crops, but also loads of the surrounding natural vegetation. The aggressive crackdown on drug producers has meant that production is pushed into evermore remote and untouched areas, where they cause untold destruction.


A better solution?

Portugal decriminalised ALL drugs in 2001 and put the money from their War on Drugs into rehabilitation programs. Getting caught with drugs means a small fine and a referral to a drug treatment program. Drug use has dropped drastically and has only 3 overdose deaths per million (14.3 lower than the EU average).

There needs to be a refocus – from the drugs to the people. Drug abuse is a social issue so, we need to approach it socially.





You are never going to be able to stop people taking drugs. Taking mind altering substances is something that humans have done for millennia, and will likely to continue to do regardless of regulations. The War on Drugs is obviously not working, despite whatever victories they may claim. It is time to reassess – is the value of human life and the environment, less than your moral war on drugs?



The pinterest pin for 'recreational drugs anf the rainforest' - features some lines of a white substance, a rolled-up note, and a razor blade



If you have any info about drugs (legal or illegal) to add, let me know in the comments!

Jessica xx

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