High time we legalised drugs?

A global policy around prohibiting plants - such as cannabis, coca and opium - undermines work to reduce their environmental impacts.

Sustainable pathways can be forged which connect 'drugs' to global movements for agroecology, food sovereignty, rural workers and Indigenous peoples’ rights.  

Drugs are not often thought of as an issue of concern for environmental activism and policymaking. There is no mention of drugs in any of the recent global climate or biodiversity agreements.  

But the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has released a 2022 World Drug Report  that does connect drugs and the environment - for the first time.  

The Ecologist beat them to it. An article called “The environmental impact of drugs” published in 2009 argued that it rests on individual consumers to alter their habits in order to protect the environment. While such a moral appeal is understandable, this is not the only pathway towards an environmental harm reduction approach to drug policy. 


A new report published today by the Transnational Institute (TNI) delves into the drugs-environment nexus with a particular focus on the three main illicit drug crops or ‘prohibited plants’: cannabis, coca and opium poppy.

Covering a range of cases from across the world, it examines the environmental impacts of these agrarian drug economies as well as the policy responses to them. These impacts are very real.  

In Afghanistan, the introduction of new green technology in the form of solar-powered deep-water wells imported from China has allowed farmers to tap into groundwater reserves to cultivate opium poppy on desert lands.

This is leading to the depletion of the water table by up to three metres a year, substantially increasing the risk and severity of drought.

New transhipment routes for cocaine trafficking from the Andean region in Central America to the US market, have contributed to the clearing of forests for landing sites in sensitive biospheres and national parks. 

Ill-gotten gains are laundered by investing in other highly destructive agro-commodity production systems, particularly cattle ranching, which further push the agricultural frontier into fragile ecosystems.  


In the Rif region of Morocco, the growing industrialisation of cannabis production, using new high-yielding varieties imported from Spain and the Netherlands, on mountainous slopes is contributing to soil erosion, land degradation, deforestation and biodiversity loss.  

While these environmental harms are very real, the underlying drivers of these harms are more complicated than may at first be appreciated. What are now called ‘illicit drug crops' have been cultivated by Indigenous peoples and rural communities for centuries, if not millennia.

Sustainable pathways can be forged which connect 'drugs' to global movements for agroecology, food sovereignty, rural workers and Indigenous peoples’ rights.  

This was done without causing large-scale environmental destruction and they continue to be used in traditional ceremonies and practices as a local medicine. 

These practices and traditions are often considered economically inefficient and therefore ecologically inferior by mainstream development thinking.

This overlooks the fact that the solutions proposed in terms of ‘alternative development’ – the creation of alternative licit livelihoods – proves to be environmentally irrational.  


In Myanmar for example, ethnic groups practising forms of shifting cultivation involving the growing of opium alongside food crops in remote upland areas, have been blamed for causing deforestation.  

Yet the crop-substitution programme that was implemented to deal with the ‘drug problem’ has seen land grabbed for large-scale rubber plantations and other industrial mono-crops - which have multiplied the social and environmental harms many times over.  

To the negative environmental effects of extractive development must be added the deleterious impacts of the so-called war on drugs. These include aerial fumigation campaigns using toxic agrochemicals such as glyphosate as in the case of Colombia - where interdiction efforts only encourage cultivation to shift to ever more remote areas, often in environmentally protected zones such as national parks.  

These measures have been extraordinary ineffective as global cocaine production and consumption have only increased over the years, despite the environmentally harmful practices used to eradicate them. An end to the global war on drugs could therefore yield important environmental benefits.  


There are a number of shifts underway in the global drug regime, most notably in the case of cannabis. A growing number of countries around the world are moving towards a regulated market for medical and/or adult use. It is not necessarily the case that these regulated markets will improve environmental sustainability.  

The current standards regime for medical cannabis is based largely on a high-grade pharmaceutical model, and many countries in the global North prefer an import-substitution approach, which encourages indoor cultivation.  

This has been associated with an extraordinarily high carbon footprint, mostly due to the advanced heating and cooling systems and high-intensity grow lights that are used.  

A recent study in the US for example found that the greenhouse gas emissions for producing one ounce (28 grams) of dried weed in indoor settings are equivalent to burning 7 – 16 gallons (26 – 60 litres) of gasoline.  

From an environmental and developmental point of view, it would be much better to source cannabis from small and traditional growers from countries in the global South - where climate conditions are suited to outdoor cultivation.  


There is a dire need for environmental justice in drug policy – and to put the issue of drug cultivation on the radar of environmental and climate organisations. This must be done with the active involvement of those who depend on illicit crops for their livelihoods. 

From experiments with organic coca leaf production for coca tea in Bolivia to proposals for a fair trade cannabis model to be developed in the Caribbean - sustainable pathways can be forged which connect drugs to global movements for agroecology, food sovereignty, rural workers and Indigenous peoples’ rights.  

By interrogating the political, legal, economic, social, and environmental systems in which drug crops are integrated, we can move the debate beyond one centred on the criminalisation of the uses of plants or the individual lifestyle choices of consumers. This will truly deliver environmental justice for people, prohibited plants, and the planet.  

This Author 

Sylvia Kay is a project officer at the Transnational Institute where she works on issues relating to agrarian and environmental justice.