Skip to main content

The Impact of Drug Policy on the Environment

  • Date
  • December 2015
  • Author
  • Kendra McSweeney

As member states of the United Nations take stock of the drug control system, a number of debates have emerged among governments about how to balance international drug laws with human rights, public health, alternatives to incarceration, and experimentation with regulation. This series intends to provide a primer on why governments must not turn a blind eye to pressing human rights and public health impacts of current drug policies.

Across the world, cultivators and traffickers of illicit drugs are wreaking ecological havoc—clearing fields from primary rainforest, piggy-backing drug smuggling with traffic in illegal hardwoods and endangered species, and laundering money in land deals that devastate protected forests.

The international drug control system must share the blame for this devastation. Forty years of dogged adherence to drug crop eradication and drug interdiction policies have been instrumental in hounding drug farmers and traffickers into increasingly fragile landscapes. Although these policies have arguably done little to stem the cultivation and traffic of illicit drugs, it has done much to amplify the environmental devastation and degradation that accompanies them.

Moreover, prohibitionist drug control policies keep the price of drugs high, ensuring that those involved in their traffic make good profits—profits that are speculatively laundered in the transformation of bio-and agro-diverse landscapes into cattle ranches and oil palm plantations.

New research—much of it using newly available real-time satellite imagery of forest loss—is bringing into sharp focus the devastating ecological costs of conventional drug policies, and how these can profoundly undermine international policies designed to protect forests, mitigate climate change, and promote rural development. The Impact of Drug Policy on the Environment explores the environmental costs of conventional drug policies using the latest science, and provides recommendations for governments to recognize this problem, review current strategies, and explore new approaches to lessen this collateral environmental damage. 

Subscribe to updates about Open Society’s work around the world

By entering your email address and clicking “Submit,” you agree to receive updates from the Open Society Foundations about our work. To learn more about how we use and protect your personal data, please view our privacy policy.