Latin America: Prohibition or climate?

To address climate change, Clemmie James argues that we must reckon with the environmental impact of the global drug trade – a $650 billion industry linked to ecological harm.

Efforts to halt climate catastrophe will fail if drugs aren’t on the agenda, a new reform campaign is warning.

The ‘war on drugs’ not only pushes drug producers and traffickers into remote, land-rich and biodiverse areas, but increases the price of drug crops and creates a shadow economy. It’s a rampant and entirely unregulated manifestation of capitalism, driven by immense profits and power.

The global drug trade turns over an estimated $650 billion each year, according to 2017 estimates. These proceeds are used to diversify traffickers’ incomes, funding other environmentally harmful activities including cattle ranching, land grabbing and timber trafficking. Across Colombia, Brazil, Honduras and elsewhere, narcos regularly buy up Indigenous campesino and conservation land.

Narco groups use their profits to buy off anyone in their way, from park guards to presidents to policymakers, while those who resist risk violence.

Fortunately, the link between organized criminal actors and environmental crimes is undergoing increased scrutiny, including in the UN’s latest World Drugs report – although this failed to make the link to prohibition. And opportunities to shape reforms are popping up across the world, as countries from Brazil to Germany recognize its failures and debate alternatives.

In Ghana, cannabis farmers joined policymakers for discussions on how this year’s legalization of marijuana cultivation and new public health approach to drugs could support sustainable development.

In 2021 Colombia introduced the world’s first Cocaine Regulation Bill, and last year, President Gustavo Petro used his first UN speech to decry the ‘irrational war on drugs’, asking: ‘What’s more poisonous for humanity; cocaine, coal or oil?’ Meanwhile, recreational cannabis has been legalized in 23 US states, creating space for further debate.

That’s why as environmentalists gear up for the COP climate conference, a new International Coalition on Drug Policy Reform and Environmental Justice is demanding a global drugs rethink.

Home page image by CIFOR via Flickr.