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Global Snorting: The Environmental Effects of Cocaine

Global Snorting: The Environmental Effects of Cocaine

09.03.15  /  Words: Peter Pulford

Beak, Blow, Gack, Charlie, Sniff or Snow: whatever you call it, Cocaine would seem to be as popular as ever in Britain’s clubs and bars.

For many it's an indispensable part of a night out, for others, a bit of a laugh and for some, a serious problem. Not everyone who takes it can be called an addict though, and those three or four lines you do on a Friday or Saturday night, well, they don’t do much harm, do they?

Well maybe, maybe not. But have you ever thought about where cocaine comes from, how it gets here and the impact that it has on the environment, on its journey to you, the consumer? Don’t feel bad if you haven’t. You are a member of a very large club.

According to many reports from both government agencies and independent drug charities cocaine is well on its way to becoming acceptable in middle- class circles and the drug of choice at dinner parties across the UK. Many of the people who use it this way are often the same people who would class themselves as ethical consumers: they try to buy organic, fair-trade goods and are generally aware of the impact they have on the environment, seeking to limit that impact through their consumer choices. Then along comes the week-end and out comes the Bugal. Cocaine that almost certainly comes from the largest producer in the world: Columbia.

Cocaine that, according to a report by the Columbian government, destroys four square metres of jungle in its manufacture for every refined gram produced.

They estimate that roughly 2.2 million hectares of jungle have been destroyed in the last twenty years.

As much as an estimated ten million litres of sulphuric acid used in the refinement process is dumped into the ground every year, finding its way into local water sources which are then poisoned: the producers then pack up their mobile factory and move to the next patch of jungle. Certainly not organic. Certainly not fair-trade.

Some of the weapons available to governments in the “war on drugs” can be as damaging environmentally as cocaine production itself.  The aerial spraying of herbicides has been associated with both the destruction of legitimate crops- due to human error- and increasing instances of poisoning in both people and animals.

Much of the raw coca leaves are grown and picked by small family operations, which then process them into coca paste and finally cocaine.  One kilo of cocaine sells at the farmer’s gate for roughly $800-1000. By the time it reaches the US and the end user, its value has increased to $100,000. The further it travels the more expensive it is and the less pure. The cocaine snorted in bogs around the UK is very expensive and in some cases less than 50% pure.

Given that it takes roughly half a kilo of coca leaves to make one gram of cocaine, and that those employed to pick the leaves earn roughly $1.50 per kilo, it’s obvious that the growers and pickers are making little profit.

However, they still make more from growing and picking coca plants than they do from legal crops, and coca leaves are always guaranteed to be in demand, thanks to the seemingly insatiable appetite of the US and European markets.

Of course not all, or even nearly all, of the people who buy cocaine in Europe or the US could be described as “ethical consumers”, yet it’s interesting that neither government agencies nor drug charities have sought to push the “ethical argument” as a reason why every user- not just those who are middle class- should think again about their cocaine habits.

So, those few lines that you do on a Friday or Saturday night; perhaps they do more harm than you thought. Not just to your health but to the environment, and to the people where the gear is originally produced.

At present it looks like the only way that the environmental impact of cocaine production can be limited is by limiting demand, which- judging by the latest available figures and anecdotal evidence-  is not going to happen any time soon.


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