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Nature Versus Narco

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Of the tens of billions of dollars in cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other illegal drugs consumed in America each year, most come from or through Mexico. In their wake, the narco-industry has left a brutal legacy of violence that plays out nightly on our news -- decapitations, executions, assassinations and gun battles all along the border and increasingly across it.

The main cost of the narco-industrial complex to our society, of course, is in the loss of lives, health and community. But the environment has proved a surprising victim of this insidious industry, as well.

The production, processing and trafficking of narcotics are slowly and quietly wreaking havoc on nature and undermining environmental conservation from Colombia to British Columbia and hundreds of points between.

Precious thousands of acres of endangered ecosystems are laid low by deforestation and clear-cutting to make way for coca and poppy fields or ill-conceived coastal development designed to launder money rather than build local economies.

Herbicides aimed at eradicating drug crops poison soils and sensitive, rare amphibians.

Chemicals used to fabricate methamphetamine -- many new even to water quality analysts, with environmental impacts as yet unknown -- flow into waterways and spew into the air.

High on drugs, fishermen work three days at a stretch, testing their own physical limits, while extracting tuna, abalone, sea turtles, sharks and shrimp, leaving barren swaths of dying ocean floor in their wake.

Illegal traffic in endangered wildlife streams through the same cash-lined channel as guns and drugs. In a March 2008 statement to Congress, Interpol linked the underground trade of endangered Bengal tigers with organized crime's drug and arms trafficking activities.

The free flow of untold sums of narco-cash leads to demoralization of those outside the industry and impunity for those inside. This cash has a cancerous, corrupting effect in the poor economies of the world. It undermines environmental policies and erodes the rule of law. In many parts of Mexico, for instance, wildlife enforcement agents fear for their lives and are unwilling to risk run-ins with narco-traffickers.

Biologists in the field have direct encounters with heavily armed smugglers. Ecotourists to the region's biodiversity hotspots, a legal and lucrative economic lifeblood, are deterred by drug violence.

At the root of it all is the hunger for hard drugs. Despite tens of billions of dollars spent in recent decades to fight the drug industry's supply side, we have too little to show for our efforts. Disrupting the cartels begets only more violence and inflated prices as gang members clash, fill power vacuums and maneuver to meet persistent demand. What the casual American drug user or addict cannot, or will not, grasp are the long-term environmental consequences of his or her actions. Vital natural resources are sacrificed for a short-term high. The hidden costs to human and ecosystem health, tourism economies, biodiversity and fisheries caused by this corrupt industry are large and under-appreciated.

Without U.S. demand, the flow of the drug economy, and associated environmental and societal destruction, would largely cease. And we would see improvement in human lives, human health, populations of endangered animals, the quality of our air and water, entire ecosystems, entire communities and even democracy and the rule of law.

As we rethink our approaches to the drug "war," let's shine a bright light on the problem and spell out the real, full costs of a supply-side drug policy that has failed -- including the costs to environmental health. Let's seek creative, new approaches that accept the need for demand-side solutions that reduce use of hard drugs domestically. We need smart and strong drug policies that are based on the best available science, address the full range of interconnected social and environmental issues and integrate creative and experimental solutions. Treating drug-dependent criminals, extending treatment to addicts who have not broken the law and expanding school-based prevention programs can substantially cut drug use. With new and innovative programs like these, and others yet to be devised, we can solve the worst problems at home and sap the power of the narco-traffickers abroad.

Illicit drugs and green living are rarely discussed in the same breath, but they are closely linked. There are many unintended, unseen consequences to the purchases we make be they non-organic produce, unsustainable seafood, an SUV or a speedball.

Let's make the right decisions when it comes to rethinking drug policies, personally and publicly. Our health, communities and our environment all depend on it.

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