Warning: drugs cost the earth

Published in the New Statesman, on 30th June 2003.

The world is at war with terrorism, drugs, poverty, hunger, organised crime, intellectual property piracy and more besides. What these wars have in common is that we are losing them all.

The best-known, and longest-fought, is the war on drugs. The magnitude of the defeat is startlingly clear. At the turn of the century, the United Nations estimated the value of the illegal drugs trade at roughly $400bn a year.

This is about 6 per cent of world trade and about twice as large as the value of the global trade in legal drugs. The US alone has spent more than $500bn in the past decade in an effort to halt the drugs trade. The most discernible results of this drive are the world’s largest prison population and a 26 per cent drop in the street price of a gram of cocaine.

Less well-known are the consequences of this defeat for the environment. The remote areas preferred by illegal drugs producers are nearly always in ecologically fragile areas, often in national parks.

Tropical deforestation, in the Andean regions of Peru, Bolivia and Colombia, in the Chiapas region of Mexico and in the mountains of the so-called Golden Triangle of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos is the most apparent environmental impact. In the past two decades, roughly 2.4 million hectares of Andean forest have been lost to coca plants and opium poppies.

Efforts to destroy the drug crops simply worsen deforestation. In the 1990s, the cocaine trade was centred in the Huallaga Valley of Peru and in Bolivia, which were thus the targets of the eradication effort. But as the area of coca cultivation fell in those countries by three-quarters and a half respectively, it increased fourfold in Colombia.

As a result, the 95,000 hectares of coca crops destroyed in one place were simply replaced by 98,000 hectares of new coca plants, and lost forest, somewhere else. The current Plan Colombia, driven by the US government, is serving only to drive production back into Peru and Bolivia and to add Ecuador to the list of producing countries.

This physical assault on the forests is reinforced by a comparably destructive chemical attack. The drug producers spray their crops with highly aggressive pesticides that threaten human and animal life alike. Turning the coca leaves and raw opium resin into sellable drugs involves a complex sequence of chemical processes. Acetone, sulphuric and hydrochloric acids, sodium and potassium carbonates, ammonia, kerosene and ethyl ether may all be used at a rate of roughly two tonnes of chemicals to process each hectare of crop. This is done on-site with primitive technology and the waste products simply dumped into rivers and streams, killing fish, plants and other wildlife.

If this were not enough, the primary means of crop control is aerial spraying of herbicides. Here, too, the effort to remove the drugs simply intensifies the attack on the environment. The US State Department swears blind that the glyphosate used, supplied by our old friends Monsanto, “poses virtually no risk to humans, animals and the environment”.

But villagers from the sprayed areas, journalists and scientists have all reported damage to natural vegetation and to agricultural crops, which often grow close to or intermingles with the coca plants. There are frequent reports of damage to human health, especially among children.

To these direct impacts of the drugs trade on the environment, we must add a compounding series of indirect effects. Drug money finances corruption on a huge scale, undermining the rule of law. It also finances other criminal activities. The illegal trade in wildlife is now worth as much as $10bn a year and uses much of the same criminal infrastructure as the drugs trade.

It is time we admitted that our current drugs policies are failing. They fail to control the trade in drugs and they fail to protect the environment. The war on drugs has failed, not least because we are taking on the wrong opponents and confuse ourselves with our own mythologies.

A $400bn-a-year industry is not sustained by young addicts from the council estates of Newcastle or the housing projects of New York, who feature so often in anti-drug propaganda. Not even they can steal enough through petty crime to generate this kind of cash flow.

This business is sustained by the manageable drug habits of very large numbers of middle-class professionals – the City traders, broadcasters, investment analysts, advertising executives and other successful people who can afford what has become known as “recreational” drug use. No amount of expensive interdiction is going to prevent the smugglers reaching this market.

It is time we bit the bullet and legalised drug use. This would allow us to tax the drugs, diverting huge revenues from the criminal world to the public purse. It would allow us to treat addicts in hospitals rather than prisons. And it would help to prevent a large amount of pointless environmental destruction.

Of course we must seek to protect our children from drug abuse. But for the overwhelming majority of people, drug use is a passing phase in their lives. However, we might achieve more by pointing out the damage this habit does to the environment than by trying to frighten young people with tales that experience quickly shows to be real only at the margin.

In this, as in so many other areas, Britain is sticking like a limpet to a failing American policy, demonstrating yet again that the pro-Americanism of new Labour can be every bit as mindless as the anti-Americanism of old Labour.