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The Environmental Impact of Drugs

The Environmental Impact of Drugs

The conversation about drugs almost always revolves around their societal, physical, and mental impact. What about the environmental impact of drugs? There’s a legitimate link between the environment and addiction, and it’s just as important to look at the impact of producing and using drugs on the environment, regardless of whether they’re legal to use. From the increasing legalization of cannabis to the ongoing opioid epidemic, our Banyan Stuart rehab center is sharing how drugs affect the environment. 

The Production of Legal and Illegal Drugs 

Legal Drug Production 

While legal to use, the manufacturing of prescription drugs presents environmental concerns. The manufacture of legal drugs is a major source of pollution and carbon emissions not only in the U.S. but all across the globe.  

Since pharmaceutical drugs are made to affect certain biological functions, they can have a severe impact on wildlife. For instance, pharmaceutical drug pollution can alter hormonal levels in fish, inhibiting their ability to reproduce. This could cause a shortage of fish, which depletes food resources for other animals, which can create a domino effect of problems. 

Drug pollution can also promote the development of drug-resistant bacteria, which can create drug-resistant diseases and infections. For these reasons, regulation of pharmaceutical drug manufacturing is a priority that scientists are only just beginning to consider.  

Illegal Drug Production 

Compared to the environmental harm of legal drug production, illegal drug production is a more complicated issue. Illegal drug manufacturers generally ignore laws and regulations that protect the environment from drug pollution.  

Their main focus is to avoid legal detection, so it’s no surprise that they’d illegally make drugs and any equipment or tools used in production in an illegal manner that’s harmful to the environment. While new and existing regulations can have a restorative impact on the environment, environmental laws only make a difference for those who follow them.  

When it comes to choosing between the environment and drug addiction, illicit drug manufacturers are focused on the latter. Illegal drug producers often deplete necessary resources, pollute ecosystems with waste from production, and cause other damage without taking any accountability. Considering all of these issues, it’s important to recognize the environmental impact of drugs and how we can help.   

How Do Drugs Affect the Environment? 

When demand is high for drugs like cannabis, opioids, methamphetamine, and cocaine, someone has to grow and produce them. In addition to the direct impact it can have on users and their loved ones, large-scale drug production can have a major impact on the environment – affecting everyone.  

Drugs affect the environment in many ways, including large-scale carbon emissions, water depletion, pollution, and loss of biodiversity. Each of these can have short- and long-term consequences for all life on Earth. With this in mind, it’s vital to understand the relationship between the environment and drug addiction and how the latter can impact us all.  

Below are some common examples of the environmental impact of drugs. 

Carbon Emissions 

The carbon footprint of cannabis is an especially big problem. With the drug becoming legal in numerous states, the carbon emissions caused by cannabis production must be acknowledged.  

Growing a single ounce of cannabis indoors is equivalent to burning 7 to 16 gallons of gas, depending on where the drugs are being grown.1 Indoor growth requires substantial electricity, as well, as the plants have complicated needs.  

Cannabis production requires powerful lights, temperature control, humidity control, and other energy-wasting forms of care. The higher the need for temperature control, the higher the greenhouse gas emissions.  

For example, drastic temperature increases are necessary for growing cannabis in cold places like Alaska or the Midwest. This heating drains energy, which may be sought by burning fossil fuels.  

On the other hand, while growing marijuana in warm places like California means less energy usage, water consumption is a greater concern. Growing drugs outdoors also causes carbon emissions, resulting from the deforestation, transportation of, and other processes involved in making these drugs.  

Water Depletion 

Water usage is another major environmental impact of drug production. Cannabis crops, in particular, require a lot of water, specifically between 8 to 10 gallons per plant per day. This is double the amount needed to grow grape or tomato plants.  

In 2012, over three billion gallons of water were used to grow cannabis in California alone. The number of crops has grown since then, so you can only imagine the amount of water that’s gone into growing drugs.  

Additionally, in places like Northern California, water demand for cannabis growth also puts a strain on local sources. Most marijuana farms in the area don’t have enough water to last them through the summer, requiring them to turn to outside sources, like wells, for water. With droughts being a common concern for Californians, water use for drug production is a serious issue that could result in exacerbated water insecurity throughout the state.  


Forest clearing for an agricultural purpose, whether that’s producing drugs, is a major contributing factor to climate change. Deforestation causes carbon emissions as each cut tree releases its reserves of carbon dioxide.  

Unregulated forest clearing for illicit drugs is a major problem, especially in Colombia. Known as the biggest cocaine-producing nation, coca growers clear remote sections of the nation’s rainforest to avoid legal detection. In just a single year, two million tons of forest emissions come from rest clearing for coca. 

In addition to clearing the forest, drug traffickers also carve out trees for transporting, storing, and processing drugs. For instance, they may clear land for plane landing strips alongside their coca crops so sellers and buyers can avoid legal detection. 

Another concern with deforestation is clearing land for laundering purposes. Some drug traffickers create palm oil plantations to launder illegal drug money, which displaces even more of the forest.  

Some major effects of deforestation include:  

  • Dry soil is caused by reduced water in the air 
  • Increased erosion, which can lead to hostile and barren soil  
  • Inhibited crop growth 
  • Long-term food insecurity 
  • Habitat loss for various species can lead to species endangerment and extinction 
  • Loss of homes for indigenous people of certain regions 

Toxic Waste Pollution 

When it comes to illegal drug production, drug manufacturers may fail to follow environmental regulations for disposing of waste and chemical products. Improperly disposed fertilizer, rodenticide, pesticide, chemical compounds, and by-products may spread through waterways and poison wildlife.  

This toxic waste is a serious problem for aquatic ecosystems. For example, long-term exposure to cocaine and other toxic by-products can cause a decline in species for the European eel, as well as fish that engage in filter-feeding, such as Amazon basin catfish. 

South America isn’t the only region with this problem. The Netherlands and Belgium are also hotspots for club drugs. Producing methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), for example, requires chemicals like hydrochloric acid and acetone. After MDMA pills have been pressed, a large number of chemicals are left over. Experts in local government in the Netherlands say around 200,000 kg of drug waste is produced yearly as a result.   

Additionally, producers may dump the leftover waste in sewers or along roads. Complying with hazardous waste disposal laws is vital to protecting the environment, but those producing illicit drugs do what they can to remain under the radar, even if that means improperly dumping waste.  

Toxic waste not only harms animals in the environment, but it can also make its way into water sources that people use to get their drinking, bathing, and cooking water. Therefore, harmful effects of toxic waste pollution include:  

  • Increased risk of developing cancer 
  • A disrupted reproductive system 
  • Immune deficiency 
  • An impacted nervous system 
  • Malignant melanoma 
  • A decline in fish species 
  • Treatment-resistant bacteria  

Loss of Biodiversity 

Another major environmental impact of drugs and drug production is diminished biodiversity. Biodiversity refers to biological diversity or the variety of life on Earth.  

Drug production threatens biodiversity in multiple ways, including:  

  • Deforestation: Clearing forests takes habitats away from plants and animals, leaving species with no homes or resources, and drives them towards extinction.  
  • Pollution: Alongside deforestation, pollution and toxic waste dumping can harm or kill species and disrupt ecosystems.  
  • Water drainage: Excessive water use in the manufacturing of drugs can also harm habitats for aquatic species, especially those in drought-prone places like California, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico. Pumping water from local sources can even change water temperatures, which can also kill fish and other aquatic wildlife. 

End Drug Use in Your Community 

While drug use may seem like a concentrated issue, it can impact the environment at large. Not only can the individual and their loved ones experience the repercussions of drug use firsthand, but our planet may also suffer.  

The environmental impact of drugs is one of the many reasons to stop using illegal drugs, but many other reasons are just as compelling. Those who struggle with addiction understand the impact drugs can have on their physical health, mental well-being, relationships, careers, and finances.  

If you or someone you know struggles with drug or alcohol abuse, consider our Stuart, FL, rehab for addiction treatment services. Our facility offers various levels of addiction care, including medical detox, to help clients with addictions of all intensities get clean.  

For more information about our Florida drug and alcohol treatment, call Banyan Treatment Centers Stuart today at 888-280-4763 



  1. Nature Sustainability - The greenhouse gas emissions of indoor cannabis production in the United States 
  1. Global Societies Journal - Environmental Impacts of Illicit Drug Production 
  1. Columbia Climate School - Coca Production, Deforestation, and Climate Change 
  1. Science - European eels are swimming in cocaine and other illegal drugs 
  1. Vice - MDMA Producers Are Dumping Tons of Waste in Nature Reserves 


Related Reading:  

Cocaethylene: The Product of Cocaine and Alcohol 

What Is Meth Cut With? 

Alyssa, Director of Digital Marketing
Alyssa, Director of Digital Marketing
Alyssa is the National Director of Digital Marketing and is responsible for a multitude of integrated campaigns and events in the behavioral health and addictions field. All articles have been written by Alyssa and medically reviewed by our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Darrin Mangiacarne.