Monday, September 8, 2008

Can you be an environmentalist if you use drugs?

If you use illegal drugs, have you thought about the environmental consequences?

There's a Facebook application ("I Am Green") that lets you post statements on your profile about things you do in your day-to-day life to help the environment. They have a ready-made list of statements -- "I recycle," "I ride a bike," etc. -- but you're also allowed to write your own. When I was looking through the list for statements I could add, a thought occurred to me: shouldn't "I don't do drugs" be on the list?

Well? Should it?

Then I saw this story (via CrimLaw):

Ecstasy tabs destroying forest wilderness

PHNOM PENH, [CAMBODIA,] 20 July 2008 (IRIN) - The production of sassafras oil, which is used to make the recreational drug ecstasy, in southwest Cambodia, is destroying trees, the livelihoods of local inhabitants and wreaking untold ecological damage, according to David Bradfield, adviser to the Wildlife Sanctuaries Project of Fauna and Flora International (FFI) [].

The sassafras oil comes from the Cardamom Mountain area, one of the last forest wildernesses in mainland southeast Asia, and where the FFI project is based.

"The illicit distilling of sassafras oil in these mountains is slowly but surely killing the forests and wildlife," Bradfield told IRIN. "The production of sassafras oil is a huge operation, which affects not only the area where the distilleries are actually located, but ripples outwards, leaving devastation and destruction in its wake." ...

"The production of sassafras oil over the last 10 years has severely depleted these trees and if the illicit production isn't stamped out soon, they could become extinct in the near future," he warned. The large vats also need substantial wood to maintain the fires, so other species of trees surrounding the distilling factory are being depleted.

Deep in the jungle, the factories are heavily guarded and the workers who distill the oil live on wildlife in the area; many are involved in poaching for commercial gain. Rare animals, including tigers, pangolins, peacocks, pythons and wild cats are consumed by the distillers or sold in illegal wildlife markets, according to FFI.

"Sassafras oil processing plants are usually located besides streams to provide water for boiling and cooling the distilled oil," Bradfield said. The oil leaks into the streams, wreaking yet more environmental damage. "There are frequently dead fish and frogs floating in the streams near these distilleries," Bradfield said. The water from this area flows down into the rest of Cambodia through the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. ...

"Law enforcement is the key to suppressing the illegal trade in sassafras oil," according to the officer in charge of UNODC in Cambodia, Lars Pedersen.
If you're interested in more details on sassafras oil and the process of creating ecstasy, read the whole article.

The last sentence in the above block quote, along with CrimLaw's reference to this as "a quandary for legalizers," raises the question: is it inconsistent to be adamantly opposed to the criminalization of the drug trade if you also support stringent environmental protection laws?

One possible response is: there's no contradiction at all. Legalizing drugs would actually facilitate environmental protection. If they're legal, then they're more out in the open and can be regulated by the government.

Maybe. But here's the problem. I would only be satisfied if opponents of the "war on drugs" were proactively suggesting what exactly the government is supposed to do once the drugs are legal. "Government regulation" is often used as a rhetorical magic wand by supporters of legalization, but I'm just not very impressed by that. It's so much easier said than done.

Administrative regulation can be an extremely complicated task even for the most seemingly innocuous substances. It's hard to imagine how you'd go about regulating a previously unregulated dimension of life as shadowy and caustic as drugs. Then factor in that you're talking about regulation on a vast international scale, and I just don't see how it'd be manageable.

Are any of the anti-war-on-drugs organizations out there even trying to grapple with these problems? That's not a rhetorical question -- I honestly don't know the answer. Kudos to them if they are.

In my experience, though, war-on-drugs opponents typically have a lot to say about the costs of the status quo, but have precious little to say about the mechanics of how their legalized utopia would actually be implemented.*

* This point is from Dr. Robert L. DuPont's contribution to this roundtable discussion of legalizing marijuana.


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Regulation would mean that a government inspector would swing by every six months to take his payoff.

Richey said...

You seem to be suggesting that currently legal drugs are NOT harming the environment. How do you feel about coffee? Certainly lots if destruction there. How about monocropped tobacco? How about alcohol? It takes quite of a lot of fuel to sterilize and distill alcohol. What about the fact that most pharmaceuticals are made from fossil fuels? Sure we don't need any of these things but why are you singling out illegal drugs? What does legality have to do with it? Would the environmental impact be acceptable if you lived in Amsterdam? I can't think of many legal systems that have any respect for the environment in a real sense. Finally, are you vegan? Animal agriculture is doing a lot more damage to the environment than all the legal and illegal drug use put together in the world.

John Althouse Cohen said...

I'm not a vegan, but I'm a vegetarian.

By suggesting that drugs are environmentally destructive, I'm not suggesting that nothing else is. For instance, you could do a blog post about how paper is bad for the environment. Someone else could come along and say, "But there are a lot of other bad things too," to which you'd respond, "Yeah, I know, but I was talking about paper."

Legality is relevant because environmental regulations don't apply to illegal substances.