Which drugs are worst for the planet?
As COP27 comes to a close, we look at the biggest offenders contributing to the crisis – and the stats are shocking.
The drug that’s not really considered a drug by most users (even though it’s one of the most dangerous, directly causing over 200 health conditions).
A report published this week by the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS), concluded that “available evidence shows that alcohol production has a significant adverse impact on our environment”. The growing of the raw material to make booze “displaces essential food production”, “exorbitant amounts” of clean water are used during the process and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are through the roof.
“The food and drink industry contributes to approximately 25 per cent of all GHG emissions,” the report states. “In the UK, alcohol was estimated to cause just under 1.5 per cent of total emissions in the most recent study of its type from 2007.”
The water footprint of booze is significant. It takes 870 litres of water to make one litre of wine and it 298 litres of water to make one litre of beer (two people’s total daily water use in the UK). That amount of alcohol could be polished off at pre-drinks.
Then there’s the packaging. Just the production of beer cans alone emits “340,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year” which is “the equivalent of 43,000 homes’ annual energy use”. But Middle England doesn’t like their drug of choice getting trashed. The Daily Mail dismissed the scientists of the report as “killjoys” and “misery guts”.
MDMA and speed
As governments and illicit chemists are locked into a perpetual dance – a chemical gets banned and the race is on to find an alternative – the waste increases.
With production tending to be localised, the “dumping and discharge of toxic waste can have significant effects on the soil, water, and air, as well as indirect effects on organisms, animals, and the food chain,” notes the UN in its World Drug Report 2022. “The waste produced during the process of synthesising drugs such as amphetamine, methamphetamine and MDMA is between 5 and 30 times the volume of the end product.”
How much noxious waste depends on the method used to synthesise MDMA but scientists have estimated that “the production of one kilogram of MDMA generates between 6 – 10kg of chemical waste and the production of one kilogram of amphetamine generates threefold of that (between 20 – 30 kg of waste)”.
These are serious chemicals – such as acetone, hydrochloric acids and sodium hydroxide – that would usually be disposed of by people wearing protective suits. In 2017, the Dutch Water Research Institute estimated that, at the time, 7,000 tons of these chemicals were dumped or leaked into the ground and rivers in the Netherlands that year. So where does all this hazardous waste go? After all, you can’t exactly sling that in the wheelie bin.
Manufacturers (usually in Belgium or the Netherlands) are known to dig holes and fill them with their toxic byproducts. Or they just fling it in a ditch. Some seeps into the water supply. When you scale it all up, it paints a depressing picture: ecstasy is the OG secret sauce that lubricates huge proportions of the British night-time economy. It’s pretty much been that way since the mid-80s when THE FACE first started reporting on it. In 2008, it was estimated by the government that between 2.5 and 5 million MDMA tablets are taken in the UK every month. That’s a lot of waste.
The ecological impact of coke is especially bad. Vast swathes of rainforest are cleared for the production lines, like a kitchen table before dinner. Colombia is the world’s leading cocaine producer and they’ve broken records recently. Last Thursday, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime said that Colombia broke its own record for coca leaf [cocaine’s raw ingredient] cultivation in 2021. “There was an increase of 43 per cent in the area planted with coca from 143,000 hectares in 2020 to 204,000 in 2021,” they said.
“Since 2001, the cultivation of coca has cleared more than 700 million acres of rainforest in South America,” according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. “This damage results in loss of habitat, soil erosion, and chemical runoff into the greater Amazon watershed, which over 30 million people rely upon.”
If we want to help the environment, perhaps cutting back on drugs is as important as avoiding meat, aeroplanes and single-use vapes. At the very least we should consider our choice of drugs. Magic mushrooms are thought by scientists to be the safest recreational drug – and they can have net zero environmental impact, straight from the source to the consumer if you find yourself in the British countryside during the right season. Plus the English mushies, liberty caps, are some of the best in the world.