It is not our search for pleasure that is so damaging to the environment, but corporal greed, social injustice, and inequality.
“You can’t call yourself a climate change activist if you’re doing coke,” says Dan Burkitt in his opinion piece for the Metro. “MDMA is killing trees,” says a video on VICE. It seems the idea that drug users should be blamed and shamed for destroying the planet is a very virulent one. The environmental damage these people refer to is real and it is related to the production of substances many people use, such as cocaine or MDMA. However, if you have a closer look at the arguments, you will see that it is not people who use these substances who should be blamed – but governments who keep the production of these drugs unregulated.
In the early 20th century the coca leaf was a legal agricultural commodity and cocaine was a legal substance widely used in medicine. The German pharmaceutical company, Merck, imported coca leaf and crude cocaine paste from South America to produce hundreds of kilos of cocaine in its laboratories in Frankfurt. An Italian entrepreneur, Angelo Mariani, invented a popular beverage called Vin Mariani, containing low levels of alcohol and cocaine. He also imported coca leaf from Peru and produced thousands of bottles in his factory in Neuilly, France.
What makes this period different from today is that the whole process of cocaine production was legal and regulated. Even though there were no laws protecting the environment at that time, and people were not even aware of the long term damage they did to nature, the production of cocaine was not nearly as damaging as it is today. That is because neither farmers of coca leaf, nor laboratories producing cocaine had to hide from the authorities. They could cultivate coca bushes in agricultural areas, they did not need to move to the heart of the rainforest to avoid eradication. What is more, cocaine itself was rarely produced in Latin America at all: the raw product itself could be directly shipped to Europe, where it was produced in a supervised environment, in a professional way.
No deforestation by illegal laboratories, no dangerous chemicals poisoning the soil of the rainforest. And beyond environmental damage, no landmines protecting the laboratories and killings civilians. No dirty money going to organised criminals and terrorists, no violence fuelled by the illegal cocaine trade, no billions of dollars spent on interdiction and eradication.
The same applies to other drugs, such as MDMA, which is often produced in illegal laboratories in Western Europe, with dangerous drug waste being disposed of in forests. Here, again, what is really damaging is that the whole process is unregulated and is controlled by criminals who don’t give a shit about the collateral damage they do to nature.
The production of these substances is not inherently and necessarily so damaging to the environment as it is today. These drugs could be produced in a sustainable way, following environmental regulations and security rules.
It is time to stop blaming and shaming drug users for the damage caused by the war on drugs. What is more, it is time to stop believing that consumer shaming itself is an effective method to protect the environment. Yes, we need to change the way we live. But expecting that simply changing our behaviour as consumers will save the planet is a myth. Without making substantial changes in our economic and political systems, without putting people’s health and wellbeing before (legal and illegal) profits, there is no chance we can save humankind.
“We all need to sacrifice personal pleasure in order to do our bit for the planet,” says Dan Burkitt. I disagree. Humans are pleasure-seeking creatures and it is not our search for joy that is so damaging to the environment but corporate greed, social injustice, and inequality.
* Péter Sárosi is Editor in Chief of Drug Reporter.