For nearly 50 years, the Drug Enforcement Administration has conducted operations around the world to stop illegal drugs from harming the safety and health of surrounding communities and the American public. Drug trafficking organizations take advantage of impoverished regions and remote geography to hide their operations, harming some of the most sensitive environments and directly effecting the people who depend on these natural resources. DEA works with local law enforcement and other federal agencies to prosecute illicit drug producers for their violations of environmental protection laws.
Join the DEA Museum on Wednesday, June 22, 2022, at 1:30 p.m. EDT for a comprehensive program on the effects of illegal drugs on the environment. DEA Museum Educator, Josh Edmundson, will host a panel of experts to discuss law enforcement operations that highlight the shocking environmental devastation of illegal drug cultivation and production. The event will be open to the public and livestreamed on YouTube and the Museum’s website, where a recording of the event will be archived.
Most people are familiar with the harmful social impacts of illegal drug production and trafficking. The illicit drug trade is a global issue that harms people directly and indirectly. Drug trafficking organizations participate in corruption, human trafficking, money laundering, and terrorist activity. However, the public is largely unaware that illegal drug production often devastates the environment. The cultivation of plants that are the source of illegal drugs frequently results in deforestation, permanent soil damage, flooding, and toxic chemical pollution. Clandestine laboratories that manufacture synthetic drugs are notorious for dumping corrosive, flammable, and deadly chemicals out the back door.
Coca plant farms rely on clear cutting swaths of rain forest to produce cocaine. Since 2001, the cultivation of coca has cleared more than 700 million acres of rain forest in the mountainous regions of South America. This damage results in loss of habitat, soil erosion, and chemical runoff into the greater Amazon watershed, which over 30 million people rely upon.
Opium poppy farms, the source of heroin, are found throughout semiarid regions like Afghanistan, Mexico, and Myanmar, occupying valuable agricultural land, poisoning water supplies, and diverting critical resources. Farmers use powerful fertilizers to increase the plants’ productivity and also apply toxic pesticides to protect the cash crop from desperate desert wildlife. Irrigation for these fields requires a lot of water and has depleted already limited water supplies. In 2000, the groundwater level in Afghanistan was dropping by an estimated 10 feet per year, forcing people to seek drinking water from wells over 130 feet deep.
Marijuana growers often cultivate their plants on public lands, such as State and National Forests. It is not uncommon for unsuspecting hikers to find themselves assaulted by criminals’ anti-trespassing measures, including lethal booby traps. Illegal marijuana growers also practice girdling, or cutting the trunks of trees surrounding marijuana plants to force the trees to drop their leaves. This technique increases the sunlight that marijuana plants on the ground receive, while still maintaining some tree cover to shelter the crop from aerial surveillance. Growing fields are also used as dumpsites for discarded containers of fertilizer and pesticide. After powerful and toxic chemicals are applied to marijuana plants, they often run off into public waterways intended for recreation and drinking supply.
Synthetic drugs, such as methamphetamine and ecstasy, are made through a chemical process rather than plant cultivation, but their production still has harmful effects on the environment. Clandestine laboratories can be located anywhere, from remote public land, to storage units, to a house in an unassuming neighborhood. The synthesis of these drugs often requires a combination of corrosive, flammable, and toxic chemicals. It is not uncommon for people involved in illegal drug production to be severely burned or asphyxiate from the fumes. These “laboratory” environments are unsanitary and dangerous. Investigators typically find trash and spilled chemicals onsite that seep into the soil, contaminating the surrounding area and water supply. The resulting damage to the environment takes decades to recover.
To learn more about these topics and DEA’s role in protecting the environment, tune in to “Illegal Drugs and the Environment” online or attend the program in person. Please RSVP on Eventbrite only if you are attending in person (do not RSVP if you plan on streaming the event). The DEA Museum is located at 700 Army Navy Drive, Arlington, Virginia.
Questions? Contact the DEA Museum at DEAMuseum@dea.gov or 202-307-3463. Sign language interpretation will be provided.
Click here to view the program flyer.
For statistics on coca production in South America and opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, consult reports published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.