In our second COP26 blog, we explore the climate impact of habitual drug consumption. You can find the first post in our COP26 series on LinkedIN or our website.

Dame Carol Black's recent Review of Drugs identified young, middle-class, white males as a key demographic partaking in habitual drug use in the UK. Like many young people, they are likely to consider themselves climate-conscious or may even partake in climate activism. However, research shows that taking, producing, and selling drugs is not a carbon-netural or net-zero endeavour. In fact, quite the opposite may be true.

Cannabis: A Case Study

Industrial cannabis growth requires vast amounts of light and water. In fact, the plant requires twice as much water as tomatoes in order to grow. Artificial lighting is a notorious energy glutton. Studies in the US have found that cannabis production accounts for 1% of all the country's energy consumption. That's over 15 million metric tonnes of CO2. One study by Colorado State University found that indoor cannabis production resulted in the emission of up to 5,184 kilograms of C02 for every kilogram of dried flower.

The biggest issue facing drug reform groups who also wish to see a more sustainable environmental future, is that even legal cannabis production results in considerable emissions. Carbon off-setting, crucially, still requires the production of carbon (which is, in turn, 'off-set').

Is it all doom and gloom?

No, not necessarily.

Plant-based materials are increasingly being explored as potential alternatives to fossil fuel-reliant materials. Hemp-lime, for example, can act as a "carbon store" by absorbing carbon dioxide as it grows. Hemp-lime-framed buildings have low carbon footprints, and could be a positive way forward in the battle to tackle the Climate Crisis.

But what about weed?

As we know from the situation in the Netherlands, legalisation does not effectively tackle drug trafficking or gangs. In fact, sometimes it can provide a "legitimate" basis for criminal exploitation. Similarly, legalisation of cannabis will not immediately have enviornmental benefits.

With regards making cannabis consumption less environmentally taxing, the answer lies not just in legalisation but in producing an effective framework which allows for sustainable and ethical production.

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  • Grace Robinson

This week, the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) begins in Glasgow. with the intention of accelerating the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Alongside COP26, we're launching a series of blogs on the relationship between Illegal Drugs and the Climate Crisis. In our first blog, Martha O'Neil talks us through the potential impact of climate change on drug-supply chains globally.

* * * * * * *

The impact of the climate crisis is manifold - some of its consequences are still beyond our contemplation. What we can predict, however, is a collosal shift in the every-day lives of millions of people, most drastically for those in the Global South. We can expect an increase in Climate Refugees, a potential reversal of the progress made in tackling gender inequality, and even a reduction in life expectancy (Hauer et al., 2020).

But what about the impact of the Climate Crisis on illegal drug supply and use? Are there any particular trends that we can foresee? How can governments work together to put in place legal infrastructures to prevent a rise in dangerous drug use?

Speaking on this issue, JSTOR Daily's Sierra Garcia notes that vulnerable indigenous populations in Mexico, such as the Raramuri, will face increased pressure due to water scarcity which could, in turn, create a perfect environment in which drug cartels could thrive. A greater number of individuals could be co-opted into drug supply networks - just to be able to feed their families and stay alive.

The type of drugs that may be popular in these new supply networks may differ from those we expect. A report by the University of Denver found that yields of illicit coca (the psychoactive alkaloid of which is more commonly known as cocaine) could decrease as much as 40% due to changing land suitability (Lathrop-Melting, 2020). Drug producers will, therefore, be forced to respond to the changing environment - and use innovative ways to re-imagine drug production and sale.

In recent years, the global supply of heroin has increased partly as a result of the harnessing of solar power in Afghanistan. One former British solider told the BBC that in Afghanistan, the opium poppy is farmed by using the power of the sun to"drill[..] down 100m or so to the ground water, put in an electric pump and wire it up to a few panels." (BBC, 2020). Productivity has increased considerably, flooding supply chains, and making heroin more widely accessible.

The Climate Crisis is a social crisis - and every social crisis reinforces the pressure points that may lead to drug mis-use or participation in drug supply-chains. Failure to foresee this issue and pre-emptively put safety measures in place will, undoubtedly, lead to the destruction of millions of lives. Even now, the mental health impact of the imminent Climate Crisis is fuelling a mental health crisis across the globe (including in countries that are not yet directly affected by climate change). One recent report by Imperial College London found a direct link between severe distress and extreme weather events as well as a relationship between increased temperatures and the number of suicides (Lawrance et al., 2021).

It is likely that future generations will, therefore, face a greater likelihood of climate-induced poverty, poorer mental health, and live in greater material precarity due to extreme weather conditions. This could be the "perfect storm" required to further fuel mis-use of and reliance upon drugs.

What can be done?

We require a co-ordinated effort by all governments to piece together the societal impact of the Climate Crisis and to plan accordingly. We cannot walk blindly into this man-made disaster. Responses must be based on conclusive research, empathy, and an understanding that in-action will cost lives. International Law should take into account the relationship between Climate Change, poverty, mental health, and drug use.

A holistic approach is not desirable - it is necessary.


  • Hauer, M.E., Santos-Lozada, A.R. Inaction on Climate Change Projected to Reduce European Life Expectancy. Popul Res Policy Rev 40, 629–638 (2021).

  • Sierra Garcia, JSTOR Daily,

  • Lahtrop-Melting, University of Denver.

  • BBC, 2020

  • Lawrance, Emma., et al. The impact of climate change on mental health and emotional wellbeing: current evidence and implications for policy and practice. May 2021.

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