By / October 11, 2023

War on Drugs Hinders Efforts Towards Climate and Environmental Reform

A new report from an international coalition of human rights advocacy groups claims that the global war on drugs has fueled environmental destruction in some of the planet’s most critical ecosystems, thus undermining efforts to address the climate crisis.

The Global War on Drugs

As policymakers, governments, NGOs, and activists work diligently to develop urgent responses to protect tropical forests, which are among the planet’s largest carbon sinks, the report suggests that “their efforts will fail as long as those dedicated to protecting the environment fail to recognize and address the elephant in the room,” referring to “the global criminal prohibition system of drugs, known as the ‘war on drugs.'”

The 63-page document was released on Thursday by the International Coalition for Drug Policy Reform and Environmental Justice, describing itself as “composed of advocates, activists, artists, and academics from both the drug policy reform movement and the environment and climate movement.”

Coalition Members and Contributors

Among the affiliated organizations are Health Poverty Action, LEAP Europe, SOS Amazônia, the Transnational Institute (TNI), and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Members hail from Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Myanmar, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

The authors describe drug policy as the “missing link” in climate justice, noting that prohibition has driven drug production and trafficking to “key environmental frontiers” such as the Amazon rainforest and the jungles of Southeast Asia.

The Impact of the War on Drugs on Environment

“Wherever smallholders grow drugs at the edge of forests, or traffickers transport their products through tropical forests, it is because the dynamics of drug law enforcement have pushed them there,” the war on drugs report says. “In fact, in the rare cases where opium, cannabis, and coca are grown legally to supply the pharmaceutical and beverage industries, their cultivation occurs in conventional agricultural contexts.”

Profits from illegal drug-related activities also fuel a network of other criminal activities that cause environmental damage, the authors of the report write.

For example, the report cites illegal trade “in wildlife, tropical timber, archaeological objects, gold, and other minerals, as well as investments in legal agribusinesses such as beef, palm oil, soy, and avocados.” Profits from drugs also constitute start-up capital for human trafficking.

Case Studies and Real-Life Impacts

The document includes case studies and photos showing how environmental damage stems from prohibitionist policies. One example links drug trafficking in Peru to illegal gold mining, while another establishes a connection between illicit money from the cocaine trade and the destruction of the critically endangered Upper Guinea forest in West Africa.

The War on Drugs Drives Criminal Activity

The international community increasingly recognizes the work of criminal actors financing “land grabbing, deforestation, timber and wildlife trafficking, and socially and ecologically devastating mining,” as well as government corruption, the report says. “However, these analyses fail to identify the driver of these criminal activities.

“It is rare, if not nonexistent, for the system underlying many of these crimes and causing so much damage to be mentioned,” the report continues, asserting that “it must be clearly recognized that current drug policies are one of the main drivers of this economic and institutional dysfunction.”

From the perspective of environmental and economic justice, the report argues that the drug war perpetuates a cycle of poverty and persecution against society’s most vulnerable.

Survival in the Face of Prohibition

“The drug trade can offer decent income or a means of survival where there is no other,” the report says, noting that an estimated 200,000 families make a living from growing coca in Colombia.

“Even when these farmers are persecuted by the police or the military, the practical benefits of growing illegal drugs in terms of livelihood often force them to resume activity despite high risks.”

Power Dynamics and Inequality

While disadvantaged small-scale farmers risk crop eradication, arrest, and incarceration, “those at the top of the trade largely remain unscathed because their power, money, or violence allows them to evade prosecution and influence policy elites.”

Call for Responsible Regulation

To combat the harms of prohibition and ensure the effectiveness of climate initiatives, the report states that “effective and responsible drug regulation is necessary.” However it warns that reforms must be holistic and based on human rights, public health, sustainable development, and environmental justice.

Towards Holistic and Human Rights-Based Reforms

“The alternative,” warns the report, “Drug reforms co-opted by big business and powerful elites that reproduce the harms of prohibition, while climate initiatives fail, missing the opportunity to avoid a climate catastrophe because they have ignored one of its underlying causes.”

The report acknowledges that regulated drug markets raise difficult questions. “Either we regulate drug markets responsibly, or we continue to suffer the manifest failures of prohibition and cede control to destructive organized criminal groups,” the report states. “There is no third option that would make them magically disappear or make the ‘war on drugs’ victorious.”

A recent report from the organization Harm Reduction International revealed that wealthy countries have donated nearly a billion dollars to continue the global war on drugs.

(Featured image by Matt Palmer via Unsplash)

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