Every year on the 20th of April people around the world gather in appreciation of cannabis, engaging in themed events and protests. 4/20 sees thousands of people head to beaches and parks to smoke this medicinal plant, this year 5000 pot smokers made their way down to Hyde Park in London. For many years hemp/marijuana was used as an economic and commercial plant, however in the last half a century is was unjustly banned around the world and classed as an illegal drug. Now many countries are waking up to the benefits of this plant and are beginning to legalise its production. The medicinal benefits of cannabis towards health threats such as cancer, depression, parkinsons and many over health issues have been heavily researched and documented. But what are the environmental aspects of a potential legalisation of this plant?
The banning of cannabis production did not stop consumption, it simply pushed its production into the black market. Across the world people illegally grow cannabis along with other drugs such as coca. Although there are many small scale growers, much of its production is at a heavy scale run by drug cartels and organised crime units, making it a multi-million dollar underground market. Due to the illegal nature of its production, there are no set regulations for how this plant should be produced, this has led to great environmental destruction.
In Colombia alone the cocaine and cannabis industry was responsible for around ½ of all deforestation in the country during the 1990s. Across Central America in countries such as Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala highly biodiverse areas are being destroyed by illegal drug production. The illegal nature of this production means that growers venture into more remote areas in order to avoid law enforcement. In many places this means production takes place within bountiful tropical forests, leading to large scale deforestation to make land free for farming the crop. A further problem is the fact that these drug traffickers must launder their money to make it clean. This is often done in the name of agricultural practices like palm oil productions, further adding to the ecological damage caused by the illegal trade.
Furthermore, the illegal drug trade creates vast amounts of environmental pollution, intoxicating landscapes and adding to climate change through carbon emissions. Some suggest that growing 1 kilo of cannabis generates roughly the carbon emissions of burning 516 gallons of gasoline. Herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers are used in environmentally sensitive areas causing large scale damage to the natural wildlife in the area. It is estimated that coca growers in Colombia use around 81,000 tons and 83,000 barrels of fertilisers and toxic weed/pest killer a year, polluting the surroundings. It is not just the drug traffickers having this effect, but also the law enforcers. In 2005 a trial program run by the Colombian Government sprayed a deadly herbicide to destroy vast illegal coca crops across 13,000 hectares of national park, bombarding the wildlife with toxic chemicals.
Alongside this destruction caused by the illegal drug producers comes endless violence not only between cartels and law enforcement, but between rival cartels and local communities. The violence following these organisations makes it harder for scientific monitoring and conservation to take place across Central and South American habitats. This begs the question, could legalising the drug stop all of this violence and natural destruction?
Legalizing the growing of cannabis would allow for its production to come out of the shadows and be regulated and run professionally. The legalization of the business could curb violence inflected by drug cartels and could solve public land problems reducing the amount of deforestation and pollution the illegal growing is causing. What could possibly persuade governments to legalize an apparently harmful drug like cannabis? The truth is there are an enormous amount of benefits that could come from the production of this plant.
Firstly, marijuana has dozens of proven medicinal uses, it is more effective, less toxic, and less expensive than alternative synthetic medicines currently in use. A recent poll revealed that over 50% of US physicians would prescribe marijuana to their patients if it was legally available. . People who suffer from arthritis, AIDS, rheumatism, leukaemia, multiple sclerosis, cancer and other ailments can benefit from marijuana as medicine. Unfortunately due to government laws, many people in need of such medicine are denied it.
Moving on, the regulated production of the plant could have huge environmental benefits to our planet. The production of hemp (the same plant) has been used for thousands of years as a textile material. In fact the very name “canvas” comes from the Dutch word meaning cannabis, however laws stopped its use in recent times. One acre of hemp can produce 4 times more paper than one acre of trees can. The production of paper from trees is incredibly unsustainable, trees taking 20-50 years to grow before they can be harvested, hemp takes just 4 months. Hemp can also be subsisted for cotton to make other textiles. Hemp fibre is 10 times stronger than cotton, uses a fraction of water and needs very few herbicides and pesticides. Allowing these markets to legally use hemp could vastly reduce their environmental impact.
Perhaps the most interesting use of the plant is its potential as a bio-fuel. Henry Ford was the first person to envision hemp as an alternative to fossil fuels. The car maker built a sedan that ran on 100% hemp ethanol. Hemp produces more biomass than any plant that can be grown in the US and has large potential as a clean and renewable energy source. Larger, legal production of hemp could revolutionise the fuel industry allowing us to power our motors on this fast growing natural commodity.
The potential environmental and the known health benefits of this plant are wide reaching, and yet many countries still have laws against its production. As we allow nations to kill themselves with legal substances like alcohol and prescription pills, the use of cannabis is forbidden. However, many countries are waking up to the benefits of this plant. Uruguay, Holland, Morocco and a growing list of US states are decriminalizing the forbidden weed. This is not to encourage people to use it as a recreational drug, it is to allow the plant to be utilized not only as a lifesaving medicine but as a potential sustainable textile and fuel. The image of cannabis that is held today and pushed by governments should be reconsidered, it appears that the benefits from cannabis production far outweigh the potential negatives. It is no longer a question of will this plant become legal, but a question of when.