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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
There is a lot at
stake if we continue to lose the war on drugs.
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
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
and our environment depend on it.
National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery
Nichols is a research associate at
Academy of Sciences and a senior scientist at
The Ocean Conservancy.