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Can Illegal Drugs Be Sustainable and Ethical?

This topic has been on my mind since before I even started EcoCult, but I’ve never had the confidence to tackle the idea of drugs being sustainable until now. I figure, 4/20 is as good a time as ever to explore the intersection (or lack thereof) of the sustainable/ethical world, and illegal substances.

This might seem like a weird topic… if you believe drugs, by their very nature, are bad. Why would someone who cares deeply about social justice and health ever put an illegal substance in her body? But the world of activists, yoginis, and sustainability advocates is one of experimentation, reverence for indigenous wisdom and ritual, and questioning of government guidelines. At best, you could say that hippies have always smoked pot and done LSD – it’s part of their DNA. And if you believe the U.S. incarceration rate is too high, then you probably also believe that the War on Drugs is one of the worst policy mistakes we’ve ever made, right up there with the non-existent regulation of carcinogens in consumer products.

At worst, you could say that people are really good at compartmentalizing. I vividly remember being in a club two years ago and having an extended conversation with a couple about their sustainable ethos. They were hugely enthusiastic about EcoCult and the importance of thoughtful living. And as a token of our new friendship, they offered me a bump of coke.

If we want to be realistic and brave, it’s time we confront this topic. After all, we drink local, biodynamic wine, which is a mind-altering substance that was once banned. Let’s give the same thoughtful treatment to the whole spectrum of illegal drugs.

(None of this is an endorsement, of course, of doing something illegal. But it is interesting information that you can discuss with your friends over an organic cocktail.)

What I discovered while researching this story actually shocked me. It certainly wasn’t what I expected, and might change your whole view of illegal drugs.


Marijuana, of course, is a plant that you can smoke. So it’s sustainable, right? Not so fast. Marijauna is like any other crop, in that its sustainability depends on how it’s grown. But unlike other crops, its illegality means it’s often grown in the most destructive way possible.

If it is grown indoors, as it is in Washington and Colorado, it is one of the most energy intensive industries in the United States. All those bright lights suck up a lot of energy. But that’s better than in California, where its unregulated cultivation has been responsible for deforestation, pesticide use, dead wildlife, and water shortages. It often relies on undocumented labor as well. Farmer’s market marijuana does exist, but if you smoke pot that isn’t organic, you’re inhaling pesticides into your system. This is far worse than eating a conventional tomato – your liver will try to process pesticides on a tomato, but inhaling them puts them right into your bloodstream.

In short: Marijuana has outgrown its green/hippie vibe to become toxic and destructive. Until it is completely legal in the federal government’s eyes, you won’t get to see the environmental and ingredient regulations needed to protect your health and the environment.


I’m not going to pretend that I don’t get offered coke every so often. I live in New York City, after all. But when that happens, I always demure with the excuse that it’s sort of the opposite of Fair Trade – directly linked to deaths, kidnapping, and dismemberments in Mexico and elsewhere – and therefore antithetical to my being a sustainable blogger. It would be the pinnacle of hypocrisy to support fair wages and safe working conditions for garment workers, then send money to a cartel.

Still, if we want to be completely objective about it, cocaine is derived from a plant, the coca plant, which is largely grown in Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru. Coca leaves have been chewed along with a calcium-rich lime in South America for at least 8,000 years. In this pure state, it gives the user a mild energy bump similar to coffee, plus tamps down hunger and helps with altitude sickness. No big deal.

However, you might say cocaine is to coca like Lays potato chips are to potatoes – the original ingredient isn’t that exciting, but when you refine it, the result is highly addictive and bad for your heart. To make cocaine, producers combine coca leaves with battery acid, concrete, and gasoline. (It’s just like Americans to take something perfectly good – the coca leaf – and hyper-process it up into something unrecognizable.) Plus, for every gram of cocaine produced, four square meters of rainforest are destroyed. This is a faster clip than palm oil. Up until I researched this, I used to joke with my friends that if they could find me organic, Fair Trade cocaine, I would totally partake. (Though, only because I have a healthy heart, because cocaine has been definitively linked to heart attacks, as well as, you know, addiction. It’s not as bad as heroin or meth, but I can guarantee you know at least one person who’s realized they need to wean themselves off of it after some alarming behavior.) Now I’m wondering if – even if cocaine were ever legalized – it would be possible to get organic, environmentally friendly cocaine.

Finally, let’s talk about the side effect of it being illegal. The multilayers of middlemen between you and the jungles of Peru put all sorts of terrifying stuff in there (if battery acid and gasoline isn’t bad enough). Levamisole gets the most press – it’s a animal dewormer that can cause you to get some nasty infections – but you might also snort phenacetin, a compound that is banned in many countries because of its link to renal failure and suspected carcinogenicity.

In short: There’s really no good reason to do cocaine at all, if you consider yourself a conscious consumer.


Shrooms, or magic mushrooms, are simply mushrooms with the naturally-occurring, mind-altering substance psilocybin, which cause hallucinations and feelings that you are one with the universe. And it may be the most natural drug of the bunch. According to an exhaustively researched story by Huffington Post (which I am trusting in this case because it was co-written by two senior staff members instead of a random, unpaid contributor) shrooms naturally grow all over the world, on every continent except for Antarctica, though cultivators can grow them indoors as well. And like coca, shrooms have been used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years in rituals and medicine.

However, there are reports that if you buy shrooms, you might actually be buying grocery store mushrooms that have been dried and doused with LSD or PCP. In an 11-year study, as little as 28% of “shrooms” were actually shrooms. 37% contained no mind-altering substances at all. The thing is, this study was published 30 years ago. A more recent report says in the footnotes that shrooms are not commonly adulterated.

Finally, researchers are actively testing psilocybin for therapeutic purposes. In the presence of a trained therapist, it has been shown to yield remarkable, lasting improvements to your psyche. Just… if you decide to try it, do so in comfortable setting among experienced and trustworthy friends. A bad shroom trip is no joke.

In short: If we exclude the fact that it is illegal, shroom usage doesn’t seem to pose any problem for the ethical/sustainable consumer.


The chemical cousin to shrooms, LSD yields a similar spiritual trip, feelings that you’ve figured out the meaning of life, and – if done with the guidance of a professional, long-lasting improvements to your psychological well-being. It is the least likely to be adulterated, mainly because it’s a tiny drop of clear liquid, often soaked into a piece of paper. According to a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) by an LSD producer, most of the world’s quality LSD supply is probably produced in a few professional labs by enterprising grad students overseen by lax PhD supervisors. The low-quality acid, which can cause some unpleasant side effects like nausea, convulsions, and headaches, is probably produced smaller, home-grown labs. If it were legal and regulated, you could be more sure of getting pure LSD, with the confidence of picking up some Xanax or an prescribed antidepressant. As it is, if one wanted to find pure LSD, one would have to find a dealer that one trusts.

In short: Shrooms would probably be the more sustainable choice, but buying LSD doesn’t seem to hurt anyone.


Molly, the current street name for MDMA, causes feelings of euphoria and trust, with lots of hugging, dancing, and deep conversations. It’s also being researched for use in therapy, specifically for treating PTSD, though when it originally started spreading in the 1970s, before it was made a Schedule I drug, it was used by therapists for couples therapy.

Currently, the base ingredient for MDMA, safrole, which is also illegal, is produced by chopping up and boiling down a rare and vanishing Cambodian tree. UPDATE: I found out that this only applies to MDMA sold in Australia and Southeast Asia, not in the U.S. It is then smuggled into Canada by Asian crime syndicates. (I wish I could find more info on these syndicates – do they break legs, or just run a rather benign import business? One study showed that MDMA use was rarely related to violent or property crime.) Once in Canada, it’s made into MDMA in labs, then smuggled over the border into the U.S. and adulterated with it seems like every substance under the sun, including ketamine, meth, and LSD. Again, you can thank the fact that it is illegal and unregulated for the fact that almost a third of ecstasy pills tested contain no MDMA at all.

If one was able to obtain pure MDMA, which has not been shown to be addictive, the health risks accrue mainly to people with two prior conditions: People with a history of depression in themselves or their family tend to experience the Monday Blues or Suicide Tuesdays, when they experience a deep funk as their brains struggle to replenish their serotonin. People taking antidepressants might experience serotonin syndrome, which is when MDMA floods your system with even more serotonin, leading to spasms, a seizure, or even death. But all of the deaths reported in the media have been from adulterated molly, or prior heart conditions that were unmasked by using the drug at a festival or rave. It would be nice if you could have an honest discussion with your doctor about your health and the risks, but it would be a rare doctor indeed who would agree to check your heart or see if your medication would have a bad interaction.

In short: It’s risky business taking MDMA, since you can’t be sure what’s in it.


Ketamine, which comes in white powder form and provokes a slowed-down, disconnected feeling, is another drug that is being reconsidered by the medical establishment, this time to address depression. Used recreationally, though, it can be dangerous – though not for your physical health. Psychologically, it could plunge you into what is called a K-hole for about 20 minutes, which is prime rape territory. It also has been shown to be addictive.

Because it’s not completely illegal, but scheduled for use in medicating babies and tranquilizing animals, it’s possible that the street drug has either been synthesized on the up-and-up in a lab, or on the down low in a non-professional lab. Most likely, it’s been smuggled in from pharmaceutical organizations in Mexico or India. In any case, it’s not likely to be adulterated, but to be the adulterant in other illegal drugs, like cocaine or molly. 

In short: Ethically and sustainability-wise, it’s not so bad. But I certainly wouldn’t recommend that you take it on a regular basis or in an unsafe setting, especially if you are a female.


Just don’t.


This one is tricky. In popular culture, methamphetamine is associated with crystal meth, a highly addictive substance that will ruin your life. This illegal meth either comes from “superlabs,” large, fancy labs like the one in Breaking Bador homegrown labs that poison the current residents, leave behind toxins when the residents move out, and cause mysterious ailments in the new residents. Oh, and then there is the grotesque violence in Mexico associated with meth’s manufacture. I would say it’s least sustainable and ethical drug on the market. It’s a good thing New Yorkers think they’re too good for the drug. Though, it should be noted, it might show up in cocaine and molly, two drugs New Yorkers are only too happy to partake in.

However, it is possible to be prescribed methamphetamine in low doses – much lower than illegal hits – to treat ADHD, as it is a Schedule II drug. And high-functioning partiers are not above taking the close chemical cousin of meth, amphetamine, in the form of Adderall to stay up all night and get some more dancing in (or pull an all-nighter at work) with little repercussions beyond a creeping sense of cheating the system and your own mental health.

In short: For God’s sake, don’t buy or take illegal crystal meth. As for getting some Adderall off of a buddy to take for a music festival? That depends on your view of taking unnecessary pharmaceuticals in general.

The Overall Picture

As you might have noticed, almost all of the moral, sustainable, and ethical quandaries with these drugs – adulteration, crime, health risks – could be cleared up if they were legalized and regulated. Unfortunately, because they are illegal, the subtle, long-term effects on your health have not been seriously studied. Until that day, it’s up to you to assess the risks, educate yourself on their production methods, and decide whether you feel comfortable, give your personal values, getting involved with them.

Think Drugs Should Be Legalized and Regulated?

The Drug Policy Alliance supports drug reform grounded in science, compassion, health, and human rights. You can sign up for alerts or donate to move the needle on this issue.

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