Rethinking the Cocaine Question: Drug Harms and Policy Failures

Environmentally damaging: coca production has been a driving force behind the surge of deforestation in producer countries. Image: Leckerstudio / Adobe Stock

In the first of two commentaries on tackling the impact of the cocaine trade, we consider the rising social and environmental harms associated with the drug, as well as the lack of progress in addressing the problem to date.

A recent article in The Times entitled ‘Cocaine Britain – and a battle of wits between police and traffickers’ identified the UK as Europe’s biggest consumer of cocaine and reported that the drug has been linked to an uptick in domestic violence as well as other forms of social and environmental harm, warning middle-class users that it is not a victimless crime. Similar arguments around the ecological damage to producer countries such as Colombia, Peru and Bolivia have previously been made, but fail to resonate with users, for whom these problems are likely to seem far away. Far from it, however.

Violence and Environmental Destruction

The cocaine trade’s impacts are most keenly felt overseas, where the consequences of the US and Europe’s cocaine habits play out through environmental destruction and extreme levels of violence.

The majority of coca – the base plant for cocaine – is grown in Colombia, with Peru and Bolivia also growing significant amounts. In 2021, the area growing coca in Colombia rose to 204,000 hectares, with cocaine production at 1,400 tonnes. Production at such a high level has considerable environmental consequences. There is significant overlap between the states with the highest levels of coca production and those with the highest levels of deforestation, suggesting cocaine has been one of the driving forces behind a surge in deforestation after the 2016 peace deal. As well as destroying habitats and therefore impacting biodiversity, the destruction of forests releases carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming. Cocaine production also requires up to 1.6 tonnes per acre of harmful chemicals like sulfuric acid, acetone and gasoline, which leach into the environment, polluting soil and groundwater and harming local ecosystems.

The profits associated with cocaine have also helped drive extreme levels of violence across Latin America. In Mexico, there have been 360,000 homicides since the government declared war on drug cartels in 2006, 40–65% of which are thought to be crime-related. The national homicide rate was 24.5 per 100,000 in 2022 – still one of the highest in the world – rising to as high as 110 per 100,000 in Colima, one of the states most affected by crime.

Drug-related violence is also an issue elsewhere in the region. Many Caribbean countries have seen a sudden increase in homicide rates, with murder rates in 2022 particularly high in St Lucia (42.3 per 100,000), St Vincent and the Grenadines (40.3 per 100,000) and The Bahamas (32 per 100,000), all of which have become important transit hubs for the cocaine trade. Countries previously seen as South American success stories like Uruguay and Ecuador have also experienced increased drug-related violence. Ecuador has become a key point of departure in recent years, with its murder rate skyrocketing by 86.3% between 2021 and 2022 as a result. Brutal tactics previously seen in Mexico and Colombia such as beheadings, corpses hanging from bridges, car bombs and targeted assassinations have become tools of criminal domination in Ecuador too. On 9 August, Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, a vocal opponent of crime and corruption, was shot by gunmen linked to organised crime, illustrating the dire situation in the country.

Innocent Victims

Closer to home, the Times article mentions the rise in domestic violence linked to cocaine use, but – like the government’s 10-year drug strategy fails to mention the trafficking of tens of thousands of children who are exploited through extreme violence, coercion and blackmail to insert large packages of cocaine internally and move it within local, regional and national borders. For them, life is a living hell where – without external intervention – the only options to escape are death or prison. Drug-related violence also has wider ramifications. Merseyside has seen a recent spate of shootings linked to the drug trade where innocent persons have tragically been murdered in the crossfire, such as nine-year-old Olivia Pratt-Korbel and beautician Elle Edwards, whose only ‘crime’ was to step outside a public house on Christmas Eve for a cigarette.

Professor Simon Harding, Director of the National Centre for Gang Research and an expert on county lines, has warned that some areas of so-called Middle England have become ‘Downton Abbey meets Game of Thrones’, so blighted are they by drug-related violence and exploitation.

While it is tempting to think that making an example of middle-class, university-educated cocaine users would quickly act as a deterrent to others, there is limited evidence that criminalisation of users prevents drug use or wider harms

The cocaine trade, and cocaine users by extension, are therefore responsible for incredible levels of harm – from brutal violence to environmental destruction, both at home and overseas.

No New Answers

The image of helmeted police officers smashing down doors to arrest drug dealers is one favoured by the media and government and tends to assuage community concerns. Yet such symbolic policing is often counterproductive, and can exacerbate drug-related harms as criminal actors have to replace the drugs or money lost to such operations. Such supply-focused policing allows users driving the cocaine trade to act with impunity.

User-focused efforts also seem to have had limited effect. As a previous RUSI commentary noted, the UK’s 2021 drug strategy promised more ‘relevant and proportional consequences’ for casual users, such as losing their passport or driving licence – a move labelled at the time as a ‘Nixon-style “war on drugs” approach’. While it is tempting to think that making an example of middle-class, university-educated cocaine users would quickly act as a deterrent to others, there is limited evidence that criminalisation of users prevents drug use or wider harms. A 2014 Home Office study similarly concluded that harsher sentences do not deter drug use.

There is also limited evidence to suggest that mass-media campaigns can deter drug use. Back in 2006, Colombia launched the ‘shared responsibility’ campaign to highlight to European users the damage the cocaine trade causes, though increasing drug use since then suggests it met with little success. In the UK, the government has been discussing the possibility of using advertising to reduce demand since 2010. Over a decade later, plans to use advertising to make cocaine use socially unacceptable have yet to come to fruition.

In the meantime, the harm the trade causes through violence, exploitation and ecological damage continues, and users remain ignorant of – or perhaps unconcerned by – the impact their actions have. With supply and demand-focused counter-narcotics efforts failing domestically, and international cocaine production booming, alternative policies have been put forward. Portugal, for example, decriminalised the possession of all drugs in 2001, a policy that has been largely successful and widely praised. Legalisation has also been proffered as a potential solution to the myriad harms associated with the cocaine trade, though the ability of legalisation to curb violence, corruption and criminal profits has been questioned. What is needed is an honest and frank dialogue, for the so-called war on drugs has failed, and something new needs to be considered.


Genevieve Kotarska

Research Fellow

Organised Crime and Policing

View profile

Dr Keith Ditcham

External Author | Former RUSI Senior Research Fellow

View profile


Explore our related content