The environmental case for drug legalisation

The number of people in Colombia killed by US tobacco is way beyond the number of>Americans killed by Colombian cocaine. Do they have a right to come to the United States and carry out chemical warfare on North Carolina and Kentucky because they have a tobacco problem and it's coming from there? By Stuart Rodger.

For those of us who support the repeal of the drug prohibition laws – and for them to be replaced with a policy of strict regulation and legalisation – there are certain facts we are already fairly familiar with. We know, for instance, that the demand for drugs is so huge and so permanent that demand-side strategies are futile. We know, too, that there will always be people who cater to this market, so supply-side strategies are equally futile. And we know as well that the damage drugs do is often the result, not of the drugs themselves, but their unregulated production in the anarchy of the illicit drug trade. But one aspect of the drug war that has, for too long now, been overlooked, is the consequences it has had on the environment.

In July 2000, President Bill Clinton signed up to the law Plan Colombia – a programme of military aid and intervention which was, in large part, ostensibly designed to destroy the production of cocaine at source, as part of their supply-side strategy to reduce drug use. The strategy they used was a one of aerial fumigation, using the chemical Roundup Ultra, produced by Monsanto, the toxicity of which was enhanced by the addition of a surfactant and the concentration of which was significantly stronger than that permitted on US soil.

The result has been catastrophic for the Colombian environment. As former Colombian Vice-President Francisco Santos explained to Tom Feiling in his must-read book The Candy Machine, "You can travel over the department of Putumayo in a helicopter for half an hour and all you see is barren land, where fifteen years ago it was one of the most pristine jungles in the world." In total, 2.6 million acres of Colombian land has been sprayed from American crop-dusting planes – an area larger than Portugal. This in a country which is the second most biodiverse on earth. David Olsen, of the WWF, said this was the ecological equivalent of "dynamiting the Taj Mahal".

Much of the damage, of course, is due to the cultivation of coca itself – for every one gram of cocaine produced, four square metres of tropical rain-forest has to be cleared. The production process of cocaine also produces a large amount of toxic waste – conservative estimates put it at 171,600 tons a year.  But all fumigation has served to do is to shift production from Colombia into Peru and Ecuador – which are themselves very ecologically sensitive. It’s called the ‘balloon effect’ – press down in one place, and the air rises in another. This is causing a vicious cycle of deforestation.

Demand in the western world is so strong that there will always be people who will cater to the market. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the fumigation programme simultaneously destroys other potential cash crops: "The wind picks up the chemicals and they go everywhere, so a lot of the maize, yucca, and plantain turn sickly too," a native Colombian explained to Tom Feiling.

The aerial fumigation strategy also has profound effects on the health of the people of Colombia. A commission from the European Human Rights organization found that ‘contrary to official declarations about the harmlessness of glyphosate, we were able to verify skin conditions (rashes and itching caused by the skin drying to the point of cracking) in both children and adults who were exposed directly to spraying while they worked their land or played outside their homes.’ The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, Paul Hunt, now also acknowledges as much – arguing against a replication of the programme in Ecuador.

The US have, of course, denied the detrimental health impact of the formula, citing a study which appeared to vindicate them. Critics have pointed out, however, that much of the data was supplied by Monsanto. Some have even compared this to Agent Orange – the US policy of fumigating forests in Vietnam, which had a devastating impact on the health of the population, including a dramatic rise in birth defects. The cocaine smuggler Carlos Lehder’s remark that ‘Cocaine is the atomic bomb of Latin America’ seems apt.

Noam Chomsky has described this as essentially a form of chemical warfare. "I’ve been down to southern Colombia and seen some of it. It’s chemical warfare which is driving huge numbers of peasants off their land and destroying their crops. Colombia has the second biggest refugee problem after Sudan. And they’re driven into urban slums and multi-national corporations start coming in and mining and so on…. The number of people in Colombia killed by US tobacco is way beyond the number of Americans killed by Colombian cocaine… Do they have a right to come to the United States and carry out chemical warfare on North Carolina and Kentucky because they have a tobacco problem and it’s coming from here? You can’t even speak the words it’s so outlandish."

And all for what? The Global Commission on Drug Policy report that there has been a 27% rise in cocaine use from 1998 to 2008. Production of cocaine has remained stable – with the UN estimating potential production of cocaine at 825 tonnes in 1998, and in 865 tonnes in 2008. The truth is that the coca plant – from which cocaine is derived – is a remarkably durable plant. As Tom Feiling explains in the Candy Machine – it can grow for up to 40 years in very poor soils, and the Roundup can be swiftly sprayed off by the cocaleros (coca farmers). The US should have known this: the RAND corporation reported over twenty years ago that fumigation strategies were 23 times less cost-effective than prevention and treatment strategies. As Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies explains:"The drug war has tried in vain to keep cocaine out of people’s noses, but could result instead in scorching the lungs of the earth."

And just how harmful is cocaine anyway? Tom Feiling reports that in the UK in 2004 there were 147 deaths from cocaine – extremely low in comparison with alcohol and tobacco – though even this may be artificially high, with deaths the result of the adulterants, not the cocaine itself. Indeed, cocaine may well be another product of what Richard Cowan describes as the ‘iron law of prohibition’: criminalize a substance, and its toxicity intensifies. "Because all coca products are illegal, importers bring them into the UK in their most lucrative, concentrated, powdered form…  After all, why would a smuggler risk going to prison for a cheap, bulky product that offers its users only a mild high…Nobody had ever even thought of smoking cocaine before it was banned," he explains. The Lancet, however, put cocaine second in their list of drugs by harm. If I were designing a regulatory framework for the legal production and sale of cocaine, I would apply a hefty duty level to discourage use.

There has been speculation that Plan Colombia, far from being a counter-narcotics strategy, is in fact a cover for what is in reality a counter-insurgency strategy, designed to maintain access to Colombia’s oil supplies. ‘The fumigation is taking place primarily in guerrilla-held areas, even though the paramilitaries are as deeply if not more deeply involved in the drug trade so that has led many of us to say this policy has more to do with counter-insurgency than counter-narcotics’ explains Sanho Tree. Indeed, US oil company Occidental Petroleum are now producing up to 23 million barrels of oil per day, in contrast to Colombia’s Ecopetrol, which is expected to produce only 800 thousand barrels of oil per day. The environmental case against shouldn’t need to be explained: to prevent climate catastrophe, fossil fuels must stay in the ground.

The more I read about the war on drugs the more I realise it is responsible for major human rights violations all across the world – from the peasant farmers of Afghanistan who are deprived of an income sufficient to feed themselves to the mass disenfranchisement of the African American community in the US – and the same goes for the war in Colombia.

Even a rhetorical embrace of legalisation was never going to happen at this year’s Summit of the Americas, but the Colombian President Juan Santos has now called for a major re-think on drugs policy, and Barack Obama has conceded that a debate about alternatives would be ‘appropriate’. That’s progress. So with the environmental costs of the drug war in mind, we should be extremely relieved that commentators are now describing this year’s summit as the beginning of the end for the war on drugs. {jathumbnailoff}

Originally published on OpenDemocracy under a Creative Commons by-nc-nd license

Correction (21/05/2012): Thanks to Jim Bliss in the comments for pointing out the error in the figures for Occidental oil production in Colombia. The correct figure is approximately 29,000 barrels per day across Latin America in 2012, not 23 million, as originally stated..

Image top: Valerie Everett.