Recreational drug markets have sparked legal battles, burgeoning industries, turf wars, and societal woes, but another effect goes relatively unrecognized: Drugs drain resources. The production and trafficking of controlled substances consumes not just money, but energy, water, and forests as well. From cannabis, cocaine, and heroin to methamphetamine and the leafy drug khat, chewed for its mild buzz in parts of Africa and the Middle East, humans' pursuit of an unnatural high is often anything but green.
When it comes to wasting megawatts, marijuana is the greatest offender. According to a 2011 study of indoor pot-growing operations, growers in the United States use about $5 billion worth of electricity to power lightbulbs, ventilation fans, dehumidifiers, and other appliances to mimic outdoor growing conditions. That's the output of seven large electrical power plants, or one percent of national electricity consumption, wrote Evan Mills, a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who performed the study independently. Smoking a single joint, Mills wrote, is worth two pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.
(Related From National Geographic Channel: "Drugs, Inc.")
"Some commercial growers probably don't even see the irony of the environmental damage they are doing," said Martin Bouchard, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. Bouchard uses utility company records to quantify the electrical draw of indoor grow operations in British Columbia, which, like Northern California, is a major hub of pot culture and production (the province's high-potency marijuana is known as "B.C. Bud.") By Bouchard's math, the average "indoor grow" operation in his city uses 210 kilowatt hours of electricity per day. That's three to eight times the electricity used by an average Canadian household.
This electricity drain hasn't gone unnoticed by law enforcement on the lookout for illegal grow operations. Chris Jakim, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said tracking the electricity use of suspected growers is "just one tool" the agency uses to build cases. But Jakim said many growers have gotten wise to their energy trail. To avoid detection—and sky-high electrical bills—many growers steal electricity, Jakim said. "They tap right into the main line to circumvent the meter," he said, "which is a very dangerous process."
-- Joseph Eaton