by Whit Gibbons

December 8, 2013

Q: What is the ecological significance of plants that produce recreational drugs like cocaine, heroin, and marijuana? Does their production cause environmental damage?

A: An inventory of plant products worldwide that people inhale, drink, eat, or inject for pleasure, sometimes with addictive consequences, would be near endless. A list of their environmental impacts would be equally lengthy. When popular botanical products are sold on an international scale, the plants must be grown in large quantities. The ecological effects of such broadscale agricultural practices are devastating to native plants and animals and their habitats. Whether the final product is sold legally or illegally does not matter.

Land use practices that promote growing a particular plant as a monoculture on a commercial scale inevitably lead to the local demise of native species. A basic ecological principle is that plants compete with each other for space and resources. When humans are involved in ensuring the welfare of a marketable species, wild native plants will eventually be reduced in numbers and perhaps even eliminated entirely. The loss of such native plants means wild animals that depend on them will also decline in numbers.

Heroin (as well as morphine, codeine, and the once-ubiquitous paregoric that relieves upset stomachs in babies) is produced from the opium poppy. The poppy family includes hundreds of species of often brightly colored, aromatic plants. The opium poppy is the only species within the family grown commercially on a large scale. The largest crops are in Afghanistan. Growing wild, none of the many kinds of poppies have significant negative environmental impact on the habitat. Some species are pollinated by bees, flies, and beetles and may be important in providing nourishment to these insects. The overall environmental impact of poppies can best be measured by how much land is cultivated for opium poppies, thus making it no longer available for native species in their natural habitats.

The South American coca plant, from which cocaine is derived, belongs to a family with more than 200 species. Like the opium poppy, coca is the best known of the species in the family. One attribute of coca, based on a well-known scientific study, is that "cocaine functions in plants as a natural insecticide." However, the major environmental impact is primarily a consequence of cultivation practices. The cocoa tree from which cocoa powder and chocolate are made is also native to tropical America but belongs to a different family from the coca plant.

Marijuana is different from the other two groups of plants in that Cannabis is grown everywhere in the world except the Arctic and Antarctic, and the geographic origin of the ancestral species is uncertain. A common tree in the same family is the hackberry. Opium poppies and coca have their greatest environmental impacts as a result of agricultural-scale planting and the elimination of natural habitat. Ironically, the greatest negative environmental impact from the planting of marijuana may be caused by law enforcement efforts to destroy the crops. Such environmental disruption probably has detrimental effects on the natural habitat where marijuana is being grown. A by-product of the legalization of marijuana could be a decrease in environmental destruction by law officers trying to eradicate marijuana crops.

Producing the hugely popular recreational drug known as alcohol has even more far-reaching environmental consequences than the drugs mentioned above. Sources of alcohol-based drinks include fruits, berries, grains, roots, and stems from a staggering array of plant species. Some popular alcoholic beverages - for example, sake, bourbon, and beer - are produced from common, widespread agricultural grains such as rice, corn, and barley. Tequila is produced only from the blue agave in Mexico, which probably helps keep the cool-looking plant around, but the agricultural processes involved undoubtedly affect other native species. In truth, widespread production of all manner of goods derived from plants - from drugs to dog food to seersucker - has some kind of environmental impact. It's the nature of people to change nature to suit themselves.

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