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Which Drugs Are Best for the Environment?

A Slate reader recently asked the Green Latern which illegal drug was the least harmful to the environment. If you not only care about your carbon footprint but also enjoy the occasional recreational high, you might find the Lantern's response enlightening.

Let's be frank: Most highs for you are kind of a downer for the planet. The conditions under which illegal drugs are produced make it impossible for the government to enforce any sort of clean manufacturing regulations, and the long-standing "War on Drugs" inflicts its own environmental damage. (Think of the RoundUp herbicide sprayed on 120,000 hectares of rural Colombia each year.) There are some ways to measure the eco-credentials of various narcotics, though. To understand how various drugs affect the environment, we need to take a close look at where each one comes from and compare the ways they're harvested or synthesized.
Ecstasy, which is derived from the sassafras oil of endangered rainforest trees, and crystal meth, which comes from either Asian grasses or the pharmaceutical chemicals ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, are among the most environmentally damaging. Meth's production is particularly toxic: "In California's Central Valley, law enforcement estimates between 4 million and 7 million pounds of lab waste were poured into canals and on properties between 2000 and 2004."

Cocaine is only slightly better (it's a major contributor to South American deforestion). Then there's heroin, which, believe it or not, is fairly environmentally innocuous relative to other hard drugs (opium is apparently a "better crop for the environment"). Marijuana, which often travels the fewest miles to U.S. consumers and is a comparatively efficient crop to grow, has the slightest carbon and environmental footprint of illegal drugs.

So there you have it. Perhaps legalizing some drugs would allow for more environmentally conscious production and shipping methods. However, there would still be the problem of their impacts on human health.

Image by Kiss Me I'm Polish from GOOD's Transparency "America's Problem Drugs."

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