Marijuana: High on Megawatts
Photograph from New Hampshire State Police/AP
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
Published August 29, 2011
Stimulants: Toxic and Taxing Forests
Photograph by Brian Drake, The Appeal Democrat/AP
Like indoor cannabis grow operations, methamphetamine production also requires energy. To break down over-the-counter cold medications into pure ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, many meth "cooks" use a popular recipe that requires soaking the pills in naphtha, a petrochemical commonly sold in sporting goods stores as camping stove fuel.
The recipe requires additional toxic ingredients such as drain cleaner and lye (above, a police officer shows a cache of meth found during a raid in California). According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the production of each pound of methamphetamine sold on the street creates five or six pounds of toxic waste. Much of that waste is poured down drains or into the ground, where it can remain for years.
The labs have created a public health crisis in many rural areas where the drug has taken hold. The danger is dire not only in meth houses, where fumes can cause respiratory problems and other health issues long after the last batch is cooked, but also in surrounding areas. South Dakota, for example, has warned volunteer groups who clean ditches and the shoulders of roadways to be on the lookout for toxic trash discarded by meth operations.
Like methamphetamine, the club drug MDMA, or ecstasy, also consumes natural resources. In Cambodia, mreah prov trees—Dysoxylum loureiri—are felled for safrole, a key ingredient used to manufacture the drug, which also requires vast amounts of fuel wood during the distillation process. In 2008, one criminal group cleared more than 900 tons of mreah prov timber, according to the Australian Federal Police, which has partnered with the Cambodian government to target safrole production. Once mixed with other chemicals, the safrole extracted from those trees had the potential to yield 260 million ecstasy tablets worth more than $7.6 billion.
Published August 29, 2011
Cocaine: The Petroleum Connection
Photograph by Luis Robayo, AFP/Getty Images
For decades, academics, policy makers and environmental activists have warned that the cocaine markets of North America and Europe are fueling the destruction of rain forests in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. In Colombia alone, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that 62,000 hectares (240 square miles) of land were under coca production in 2010. When land is cleared for coca, the area surrounding it becomes an economic hub, in turn causing more rain forest destruction.
But cocaine's environmental destruction and energy use does not end with farmers clearing pristine land for coca plants. Farmers also use a number of harmful insecticides, fungicides, and fertilizers (some of which are petroleum-based) to grow the plants. Petroleum products are also a key ingredient in the process of turning coca into cocaine. To extract the drug from the plant, farmers mash coca leaves and soak the paste in petroleum products such as gasoline or kerosene. According to the U.S. State Department, as many as 85 quarts (80 liters) of kerosene are used to manufacture every kilogram of cocaine that makes its way to the street market.
Published August 29, 2011
Khat: Chewing Water Away
Photograph by Ed Ou, Getty Images
Water and development experts say Yemen could be the first country in the world to drain its aquifers, leaving its people without a reliable water source. The leafy drug khat, a mild stimulant and the country's most important cash crop, is one of the major causes. According to the World Bank, cultivation of khat consumes 30 percent of the country's groundwater. And since khat is more profitable to farmers than the grapes the bushy plants displace, the World Bank expects production to increase.
As farmers tap the country's water supply, they burn fossil fuel. Across the rural areas where khat is grown, diesel pumps power the irrigation systems that bring water to the plants. "The engines run 24 hours a day," said Kyle Foster, an international development consultant with extensive experience in Yemen. "You can hear them in the distance pretty much wherever you area. Unfortunately that's the sound of the aquifers being drained."
The government of Yemen has subsidized farmers' use of diesel fuel, a practice that experts say creates a disincentive for fuel and water conservation. Fuel to run irrigation pumps has traditionally been inexpensive, but Naif Abu-Lohom, vice-president of the Water and Environment Center at Sana'a University in Yemen's capital, said rising unrest and violence from more than six months of protests against President Abdullah Saleh have led to rising fuel prices. Abu-Lohom doubts rising costs will cut khat production. "The demand of khat is very high and whatever pumping of water will cost, farmers will increase the price of khat in the market," he said.
Published August 29, 2011
Heroin: Depleting Soil and Fuel
Photograph by Paula Bronstein, Getty Images
Like cocaine, the global market for heroin and other opiates has led to deforestation as farmers in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia clear land to grow opium poppies. Like the coca plant, opium poppies quickly deplete nutrients in forest soil, leading growers to slash and burn new forest areas for planting. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, poppy plots sometimes last for as few as two or three crop cycles before farmers move on. In addition to Afghanistan and Southeast Asia, the report said, opium production has moved into Mexico and Guatemala, where growers plant crops on "steep-sloped and narrow mountain canyons and in small isolated stream valleys" to avoid detection.
The environmental problems of heroin production go beyond farming poppies. Refining the milky sap extracted from poppies into heroin requires toxic substances including lime, ammonia, acetone, and hydrochloric acid. The process often takes place beneath the jungle canopy and the poisonous chemicals are later discarded or seep into waterways.
Quantifying the energy use involved with heroin production is a difficult task, but Martin Bouchard at Simon Fraser University said the true carbon footprint of heroin includes fuel used by criminal organizations that traffic the drug by airplanes, boats, and cargo ships from South America, Mexico, and Asia. The same goes for cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine, Bouchard said.
Published August 29, 2011
Latest Energy News
As oil companies prepare to tap into Arctic oil, a new report from the National Research Council says we're far from ready to clean up a spill.
Extending the wait for a verdict on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, the U.S. State Department says it will allow more time for federal agencies to weigh in.
A veteran balloonist is among those who want to use solar updraft towers to generate power, but funding has been elusive.
The Big Energy Question
Join the debate over whether we should view natural gas as a transitional fuel that eventually gives way to renewables, or whether it is blocking the way forward.
From better mass transit to a stronger mix of renewable energy, what is the most important thing we can do to make cities smarter when it comes to energy use?
As shipping and energy activity increase in the region, what do we urgently need to learn more about? Vote and comment on the list.
The Great Energy Challenge
The Great Energy Challenge is an important National Geographic initiative designed to help all of us better understand the breadth and depth of our current energy situation.