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Deforestación en un cultivo de coca en Colombia. |

Emerging debate inside drug policy: climate change and the right to a healthy environment

The UN system can no longer ignore calls to align its objectives on drug policy, climate change and the protection of the right to a healthy environment. Beyond building policies on “environment” or “climate change,” the focus should be on human rights, particularly the right to a healthy environment.

Por: Luis Felipe CruzMarch 29, 2024

The rights of peasant communities growing coca leaf, poppy, or marijuana are not a priority at the annual sessions of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, held each year at the United Nations headquarters in Vienna. At CND 67, however, there was a growing interest in promoting the link between drug policies and human rights, particularly the right to a healthy environment, nature, and the impact of the illicit market on greenhouse gas emissions. 

There is still a lack of vision from the global south and a lack of coherence between the agendas promoted by the United Nations. The emphasis on the environment or climate change as abstract concepts distracts from a fundamental approach: the right to a healthy environment, which implies the existence of populations growing illegal plants that must be supplied by States. 

Here are some cases that show the relationship between the right to the environment and drug policy in countries like Colombia, South Africa, or Morocco, but they invite reflection within the United Nations system to make the policies it promotes more coherent.

Drug policy, illegal market and environment

In the Amazon basin countries, there is a connection between drug policy, transnational organized crime, deforestation, and illegal mining. In Colombia, half of the hectares of coca are located in areas with some level of environmental protection. In South Africa, eradication efforts targeting cannabis crops have led to the displacement of illegal crops to remote and ecologically sensitive areas. The relationship between drug policy, deforestation, and the degradation of ecosystems due to the illegal cocaine market has been discussed, but a diagnosis of the underlying problem has not been reached: the war on drugs has created a market that impacts the environment, and drug policy has harmed the right to a healthy environment.

We know, for example, that although the illegal economy has a reduced incidence in the overall environmental impact globally, the extension of illicit crops is relatively small compared to other agricultural economies. However, it does have a significant impact on a local scale, where the production of coca paste and processing of coca leaf lack proper waste disposal practices. Other impacts are also present, ultimately affecting the standard of living of rural populations.

Cannabis cultivation in the Rif area of northern Morocco has placed environmental pressure on an already fragile ecological system due to deforestation, water scarcity, and loss of biodiversity. In South Africa, traditional cannabis growing areas, known as “dagga,” are experiencing extremely high levels of unemployment. Extended families often rely on the income of a single person to survive, leading to the creation of large areas of monoculture despite the use of glyphosate spraying by south African government.

The UNODC estimates that the carbon emissions from cocaine manufacture globally amount to 8.9 million tons of CO2e per year. In the case of cannabis, the total carbon footprint from indoor production ranges between 2,300 and 5,200 kg CO2e per kilogram of dried cannabis flower, while outdoor production emits between 22.7 and 326.6 kg CO2e per kilogram of dried flower.

According to the International Drug Policy Reform and Environmental Justice Coalition, there are three key ways in which drug policy impedes climate justice. The first concerns how the war on drugs has pushed drug production closer to protected areas. Second, drug policy creates an illegal market that enables the reinvestment of profits from drug production into other extractive activities such as mining, timber extraction, and extensive cattle ranching. Third, it directly causes damage through the use of pesticides in eradication actions.

The fact that alternative development continues to be thought of as a strategy for generating resources from agricultural activities, even though prohibition has displaced cultivation to environmentally sensitive areas, is an example of how the agendas of development, environmental protection, and drug policy are not connected. It is also challenging to envision cannabis regulations that do not address environmental concerns, such as intensive water use or the exclusion of small growers, which poses significant obstacles to advancing sustainable development in impoverished regions where the illicit plants are grown.

The agricultural bias of illicit crop substitution in coca, cannabis or poppy producing countries is problematic because it implies changing land use in protected ecosystems. In its worst version, it means that families within protected areas are left aside because states prioritize protecting ecosystems over granting rights to the people who inhabited them. For instance, the cooperation agenda to prevent deforestation in the Colombian Amazon may result in an alternative development model where coca-growing families are compelled to engage in conservation agreements that restrict their access to land and other rights without addressing their income needs.

Opportunities for coherence

The war on drugs not only has impacts, but also the very existence of legal or illegal markets for cannabis or other substances can generate an intensive use of natural resources that poses a conflict over access in regions particularly vulnerable to climate change. It is relevant to speak of the post “war on drugs” world, where the consequences of drug policy have to be measured even in regulated scenarios. The connection between the environment and drug policy is not limited to aerial spraying of glyphosate or the carbon footprint of the illegal market.

UN system can no longer turn a blind eye to calls for drug policy reform and this includes a mandate to align drug policy, climate change policy and the protection of the right to a healthy environment within the UN agencies. To achieve a coherent reform of the system, we must have a better understanding of the impacts of the illicit drug economy and the strategies used to address them on the right to a healthy environment. In other words, amidst the tensions between the United Nations spaces in Vienna and Geneva, drug policy can no longer ignore the fact that the populations where the war on drugs is being implemented are also those whose right to a healthy environment has been most affected.

The first opportunity is the implementation of the UN system common position in support of the implementation of international drug control policy, which promotes livelihoods through long-term development-oriented drug policies in rural areas, taking into account environmental protection and sustainability. The second opportunity is the follow-up to the report on human rights challenges in addressing and countering the drug problem, which OHCHR prepared for CND 67, in which it identified the enjoyment of the right to a clean and healthy environment as a universal human right as one of the challenges of drug policy.

The final opportunity is the general comment process on economic, social, and cultural rights being conducted by the Committee on ESC rights. It provides a platform to acknowledge the impact of drug policies and the illegal market on the ESCR of rural populations, specifically concerning the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to work, social security, and the right to a healthy environment. Additionally, it aims to ensure that environmental protection initiatives align with human rights-based drug policies to prevent the recurrence of detrimental errors made during the war on drugs in environmental conservation strategies.

If we want drug policies that address environmental challenges and protect the rights of peasant populations to a healthy environment, from a global south perspective, we must consider the issue as a human rights problem and not just as a matter of illegal economics or law enforcement. This perspective prompts us to pursue alternative goals, such as providing rights for people involved in the cultivation of plants deemed illicit.

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