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Environment is victim of addiction

Opinion: By Wallace J. Nichols Whittier Daily News, September 25, 2006

THE goal of the U.S.-backed war on drugs is to stop cocaine and heroin produced in South America from traveling north through Mexico and into the bloodstreams of Americans. Yet after spending tens of billions of dollars in recent decades, there's little to show for our efforts.

In fact, according to the latest reports by the Washington Office on Latin America, narcotrafficking has remained strong. Since the early 1980s, U.S. cocaine and heroin prices have fallen considerably, while purity levels have risen and then remained fairly stable.

Furthermore, cocaine and heroin use is beginning at younger ages, and the total number of users has risen. Loss of human lives and suffering should be our primary concern while addressing this issue.

However, the cost to our environment from the narco-industrial complex and its subsequent toll on human health is also staggering.

Pressing environmental issues like global warming and ocean contamination are grabbing headlines, while the production, processing and trafficking of narcotics is slowly and quietly wreaking havoc on nature and undermining environmental efforts around the world in three major ways.

Destruction and contamination. Growing coca plants for cocaine and poppies for heroin results in deforestation and the clearing of thousands of acres of endangered ecosystems. Attempts to eradicate the drug crops with herbicides poison the soils and sensitive amphibians. The chemicals involved in the fabrication of drugs like methamphetamine pollute our waterways when waste is dumped and the air in buildings when meth is cooked. Some of the narco-chemicals flowing down the Tijuana River to the ocean are new to water quality analysts, and the potentially devastating environmental impacts are as yet unknown.

Corruption and impunity. The unaccounted-for cash flowing through the narcotics industry results in demoralization and impunity, undermines environmental policies and erodes the rule of law. In parts of Mexico, wildlife law enforcement agents are unable to do their jobs because they fear for their lives and are understandably unwilling to risk a run-in with a narco-trafficker. Drug-related violence is on the rise, and many field biologists have had direct encounters with armed smugglers.

Addiction and apathy. When individuals are drug users or addicts, it is impossible for them to think about the long-term environmental consequences of their actions. They are solely focused on obtaining their next fix. As a result,

stopping for three days straight, pushing their own physical limits to the breaking point, while leaving a barren, dying ocean floor in their path.

At the root of all this is the hunger for hard drugs. The U.S. drives the drug market with its insatiable addiction to meth, heroin and cocaine. Without this demand, the flow of the drug economy and associated environmental destruction would cease.

There is a lot at stake if we continue to lose the war on drugs.

Human lives, human health, endangered animals, the quality of our air and water, entire ecosystems, entire communities, even democracy and the rule of law are at risk.

As we re-think our approach to the drug issue, let's connect the dots. Let's spell out the real, full costs of a drug policy that doesn't work and find creative new approaches that focus on reducing drug use domestically, rather than losing the battle abroad with supply-side approaches.

We must curb demand and decrease the power of traffickers and dealers by focusing efforts on cutting consumption by the heavy users responsible for the vast majority of drug-related crime and social problems.

Treating drug-dependent criminals, extending treatment to addicts who have not broken the law and expanding school-based prevention programs can substantially cut drug use. The data indicate that resource-intensive drug courts are effective in creating long-term change.

We need smart and strong drug policies that are based on the best available research, that address the range of interconnected social and environmental issues and that integrate creative and experimental solutions.

Our communities and our environment depend on it.

September is National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month.


Wallace J. Nichols is a research associate at

California Academy of Sciences and a senior scientist at The Ocean Conservancy.