Drugs, Environment and the Law
The headline screams that [unidentified] marijuana growers for a Mexican cartel [also unnamed] were responsible for a 600,000 acre California brushfire. This story comes after several years during which the mass media have been incessantly beating the drum about environmental harms caused by illegal marijuana farmers throughout that state.
And these stories, in turn, follow a continuing hysteria filling at least a decade about the harms caused by illegal meth cookers. I have no doubts about explosions and fires resulting from amateurs trying to do advanced chemistry in a motel bathroom or about the dangers of the chemicals left behind by don’t-give-a-damn meth entrepreneurs who sloppily mix together a witch’s brew. I do suspect that all the meth cookers together don’t add up to one of the hundreds of brown sites left by pre-1970 industrial sites the EPA has inherited.
Before meth, the story was the illicit cocaine processors in the Andean Republics. They dumped large quantities of chemicals, including kerosene and hydrochloric acid, into previously pristine Amazonian streams, destroying substantial tracts of the rain forest (but not as large as those devastated by loggers and cattle ranchers).
Even earlier were illegal alcohol stills. As Prohibition spread in the 1920s, the mobsters would pay marginal families – often immigrant -- $5 a week to put small distilleries in their bathrooms, making up to five gallons of “bathtub gin” (Yes, this is where that name came from) each week. Like the later meth cookeries, these had a nasty habit of exploding, causing injuries and fires. The crowded tenements of New York and Chicago were plagued by these distillery fires for the entire decade. And the tax-avoiding moonshiners in the South dumped (and still dump) their toxic wastes in the streams just like the later cocainistas.
The tale has jumped from the crowded big city tenements to the rainforests of Amazonia to the trailer-towns of rural America to the pristine forests of California. It has included alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, and amphetamines. Do these widely scattered stories have anything in common?
The common feature is that all of the activities described are against the law. Can the law, then, become the cause of these destructive activities?
The answer lies on the other side of the record. It’s time to flip it over and find out what side B has to say.
Jim Beam and Hiram Walker have produced whiskey for decades without turning their communities into brown sites and without explosions. Farmers provide thousands of tons of barley and rice to Anhauser-Busch, Millers, and Coors without any more environmental damage than their neighbors raising wheat or cotton. Millions of gallons of ethanol for fuel (denatured to keep it from being drunk) come each year from corn grown in compliance with all the environmental regulations. Alcohol, per se, doesn’t cause the harm.
German and Dutch pharmaceutical firms produced hundreds of tons of cocaine each year from about 1900 until the war closed them down in 1940; they were as kind to the environment as any other industries of that time. (The weaselly language is necessary because any real environmental laws were still a generation in the future when they closed.) One U. S. company meets all the country’s need for legal cocaine as a by-product to providing Coca-Cola with decocainized coca leaves for flavoring, and has been doing so for a century. It is a good environmental citizen.
Amphetamines were introduced to American medicine in 1935 in the form of Benzedrine. All three forms – Benzedrine, Dexedrine, and methamphetamine – were among the top-selling pharmaceuticals from the 1940s through the 1960s; and Dexedrine and methamphetamine are still prescribed to children with Attention Deficit spectrum disorders. The manufacturers have always complied with good manufacturing practices and environmental laws.
Thousands of acres of Cannabis, grown for hemp, are farmed in Canada and Europe. Those farms are just as clean and safe as the wheat crops adjoining them.
Yes, legality does make a difference. A clean, safe activity becomes a pestilence when forced outside the law. At least three factors come into play.
One is relative cost. A person facing decades in prison and torture or murder by competitors will not be deterred by the threat of an administrative fine for violating environmental regulations. His risks and costs are far different from those faced by a legitimate business person.
A second is the lack of investment commitment. A wheat or cotton farmer views his land as a life-long investment, to be protected and even improved for his descendants. An illegal marijuana grower has to treat his field or grow house as an expensive item. It is likely to be destroyed or confiscated by the police during the current crop cycle. In these circumstances, money or effort spent in protecting or conserving it is thrown away. Johnson may have said that the prospect of being hanged focuses ones mind, but the threat of a DEA raid makes one terribly short-sighted.
Illegality also carries the need for secrecy. Plants must be minimal (chemical vats in many cocaine labs are merely holes in the ground lined with plastic sheeting). Additional trucks or piping to dispose of waste or additional labor to keep things clean heighten the risk of discovery. Quick and dirty becomes safer.
Environmental damage, then, is an unintended, but inevitable, consequence of prohibition. Amazonian jungles and California forests are part of the collateral damage of the War on Drugs.