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The War On Drugs Undermines Climate Efforts And Environmental Justice, New Report From International Coalition Says



A new report from an international coalition of advocacy groups says global drug prohibition has fueled environmental destruction in some of the world’s most critical ecosystems, undermining efforts to address the climate crisis.

As policymakers, governments, NGOs and activists work to craft urgent responses to protect tropical forests, which are some of the largest carbon sinks on the planet, the report says that “their efforts will fail as long as those committed to environmental protection neglect to recognize, and grapple with, the elephant in the room”—namely “the global system of criminalized drug prohibition, popularly known as the ‘war on drugs.'”

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

Affiliated organizations include Health Poverty Action, LEAP Europe, SOS Amazônia, the Transnational Institute (TNI) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Members are from Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Myanmar, the Netherlands and the U.K.

Authors describe drug policy as the “missing link” in climate justice, noting how prohibition has pushed drug production and trafficking into “key environmental frontiers” like the Amazon rainforest and the jungles of Southeast Asia.

“Wherever smallholders are growing drug crops at the forest margin, or traffickers transporting their products through tropical forests, it’s because the dynamics of drug law enforcement pushed them there,” the report says. “In fact, in the few cases where opium, cannabis, and coca are being legally grown—to supply the pharmaceutical and beverage industries—their cultivation occurs in conventional agricultural contexts.”

Profits from illegal drug operations also powers a network of other criminal activity that causes environmental harm, authors wrote. As examples, the report points to illegal trades “in wildlife, tropical timber, archaeological artifacts, gold and other minerals, as well as investments in legal agribusinesses such as beef, palm oil, soy and avocados. Drug profits also provide seed capital for the business of human trafficking.”

The paper includes case studies and photos detailing how environmental harm stems from prohibitionist policies. One example links drug trafficking in Peru to illegal gold mining, while another ties illicit money from the cocaine trade to destruction of the severely threatened Upper Guinean forest of West Africa.

The international community is increasingly recognizing the work of criminal actors in financing “land grabs, deforestation, timber and wildlife trafficking, and socially and ecologically devastating mining,” the report says, as well as government corruption. “Yet these analyses stop short of identifying the driver of these criminal activities.”

“Rarely, if at all, is the system that underpins so many of these crimes, and the driver of so much harm ever mentioned,” it continues, asserting that “it needs to be clearly acknowledged that current drug policies are one of the main drivers of this economic and institutional dysfunction.”

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

“The drug trade can offer a decent income or means of survival, where no other exists,” it says, noting that an estimated 200,000 families make a living growing coca in Colombia. “Even when those farmers are persecuted by police or military, the pragmatic livelihood benefits of growing illegal drug crops often compel them to return to the business despite high risks.”

While low-level, disadvantaged small farmers face eradication of their crops, arrest and incarceration, “those at the top of the trade remain largely unscathed as their power, money or violence buys them immunity from prosecution and influence over elite policy making.”

To combat the harms of prohibition and ensure climate initiatives are effective, the report maintains that “effective and responsible drug regulation is necessary.” But it warns that reforms have to be holistic and grounded in human rights, public health, sustainable development and environmental justice.

“The alternative,” it cautions: “drug reforms co-opted by big corporations and powerful elites that replicate the harms of prohibition, whilst climate initiatives fail, missing the opportunity to avert climate catastrophe, because they ignored one of its underlying causes.”

The report touches on the history of the global drug war and its failure, emphasizing that prohibitionist policies pursued by what it calls the Global North were based largely on a desire “for the social control of ‘undesireables,’ be they immigrants, racial minorities, indigenous communities, or political and ideological opponents.”

It describes the drug war as “disastrous,” even on its own terms. “Illegal drugs are more available, cheaper, more varied, and more potent and dangerous than ever before; more people use drugs, experience drug related health harms and death.”

Trends today are changing, authors noted, pointing out that “more than half a billion people will soon be living in jurisdictions where cannabis is legal.” And reforms aren’t limited to marijuana:

“The legal regulation of drugs other than cannabis is also now a reality, with a legal coca leaf market established in Bolivia, and a Bill proposing a legal coca and cocaine market being debated in the Colombian Senate, reforms allowing access to psychedelic plants being implemented in Colorado and Oregon states, and the Netherlands exploring options for regulated MDMA/ ecstasy access.”

Regulated drug markets raise difficult question, the report acknowledges. “But the reality of resilient demand for drugs has to be the basis of any rational discussion; we either responsibly regulate drug markets or we continue with the manifest failings of prohibition, and abdication of control to destructive organised crime groups,” it says. “There is no third option in which they can be magically wished away, or the ‘war on drugs’ somehow emerging victorious.”

The report comes amid a changing global mindset about controlled substances, even as the drug war rages on. A United Nations agency report last month highlighted human rights concerns raised by the war on drugs, urging member states to shift from punitive drug-control policies to an approach rooted in public health. Dealing with drugs as a criminal problem, it said, is causing further harm.

UN experts and global leaders echoed those points in June as part of World Drug Day.

In 2019, the UN Chief Executives Board, which represents 31 UN agencies including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), adopted a position stipulating that member states should pursue science-based, health-oriented drug policies “including the decriminalization of drug possession for personal use.”

Latin American and Caribbean countries also recently agreed to rethink the drug war. Under the current, punitive approach, “the expected results have not been obtained when combating the world drug problem, leaving in many cases the underlying problems to be solved and exploiting and exacerbating vulnerabilities of our territories and societies,” according to a joint statement issued by 19 nations.

Nevertheless, a recent report by the organization Harm Reduction International found that wealthy countries gave nearly $1 billion to further the global drug war.

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Image element courtesy of Dominic Milton Trott.

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Ben Adlin, a senior editor at Marijuana Moment, has been covering cannabis and other drug policy issues professionally since 2011. He was previously a senior news editor at Leafly, an associate editor at the Los Angeles Daily Journal and a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs. He lives in Washington State.


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