UN Drug Report on Environmental Impact of Cannabis Legalization

Despite inherently flawed and overlooked data, the United Nations annual drug report tries to make sense of an increasingly expansive and convoluted global cannabis landscape.

The United Nations released its annual World Drug Report on Monday, and, for the first time, it looks at cannabis legalization outcomes and the environmental impacts of different types of cannabis cultivation.

The member states’ self-reported data is lacking and inconsistent as the UN tries to keep tabs on global cannabis trends.

While the number of regions where cannabis is legal for medical or adult use continues to spread worldwide, regulations vary – often widely, hindering efforts to contextualize and compare data points.

In the United States, there is little consistency in the cannabis industry by state regarding the regulation of pesticides, packaging, or even proper terminology. 

While the report elucidates the worldwide cannabis landscape, it is more instructive about cannabis data collection gaps and needs than the data shows. The report, published annually, draws on existing and newly collected data. 

In the sections on cannabis and environmental impacts, the report notes that studies on the carbon footprint of cannabis are “scarce.” The report emphasizes that this is especially true regarding outdoor or sun-grown cultivation. 

“Substantial data gaps hinder accurate estimates of the global carbon footprint of outdoor cannabis cultivation for dry flower and/or resin. In order to enable such estimates, one would need production data that allow the quantification of yields, fertilizer inputs, processing energy, and the effects of land management on, for example, soil and water systems,” the report reads.

Senior Drug Policy Analysts advised the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to include other topics such as biodiversity (landraces).

Analysts expected the report to ignore the most pressing environmental issues caused by prohibition, including unregulated cultivation using pesticides and forest canopies for cover. 

According to an independent researcher of cannabis policies, Kenzi Riboulet-Zemouli, “The report also grossly ignores the importance of indigenous communities and their traditional knowledge and skills in conservation of ecosystems and protection of the environment.

“Elsewhere, impactful policies known to have devastating impacts on the environment and public health are the government-sanctioned mass-spraying of glyphosate used to eradicate illicit crops for decades on several continents. The report includes only one paragraph on this topic, where an appropriate assessment and self-criticism were expected. UNDOC was implicitly supportive of this process and did not oppose it.” 

UNODC fails to acknowledge its role in supporting the most environmentally-destructive policy enforcement measures in the previous decades.

Still, a few findings are noteworthy. The report notes that the “carbon footprint of indoor cannabis cultivation” is anywhere from 16 to 100 times the footprint of outdoor or sun-grown cultivation. 

Furthermore, 80% of this carbon footprint comes from “climate control measures” such as “HVAC equipment to maintain temperature and humidity and for growing lights.” 

Significantly, the report points to research that shows that legal frameworks “provide authorities with opportunities for environmental protection.” That is, only if there is compliance, which, as the report notes, has been a problem in places like California, where significant cannabis cultivation takes place. 

The language around data gaps in the section on legalization outcomes is noteworthy in light of how people use data in legalization debates. 

“Importantly,” the report notes, “the full effects of legalization on public health, safety, and criminal justice will take decades to become apparent. In most jurisdictions, cannabis production and supply chains are being developed and have not yet stabilized. A few years after the legalization of non-medical use of cannabis may not be long enough to provide an adequate indication of the impact of cannabis use on public health as cannabis markets are still developing.” 

The report continues: “Assessing cannabis legalization is a complex undertaking, and existing literature should be read with a critical approach. Cannabis legalization can potentially affect areas of interest such as public health or public safety differently, with some favorable effects in some areas and unfavorable effects in others. Given the polarization of views on cannabis legalization, advocates are often selective in how they aggregate or combine different indicators to focus exclusively on outcomes whose trends favor their pre-existing conclusions.” 

From there, the report looks at what the data currently shows concerning the areas it has identified as the six “desired outcomes” of legalization, including allowing adult-use consumption while preventing youth use; creating a regulated market with quality control measures; eliminating the illicit market; reducing and/or redirecting law enforcement costs; generating tax revenue and investing it in public health and safety efforts, and criminal justice reforms.

For youth use, for example, it is “either decreasing or stable” in the U.S. and Canada but is increasing in Uruguay. Canada and Uruguay are the only two countries to have legalized and regulated cannabis for adult use, while 19 states in the U.S. have done so.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the following states have legalized the adult use of cannabis: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington. 

Additionally, cannabis is legal in Washington, DC, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands.  

Daily use and vaping, both cannabis and nicotine, are increasing among youth. Arrests are decreasing. THC potency is increasing.

Consumption among pregnant people to treat nausea is increasing, albeit this was increasing before legalization.

The proposed responses to these findings include investing in research, putting out messaging to “address misperceptions of the risks” of consumption, and looking at the “lessons learned from the tobacco, alcohol and ultra-processed food industries as well as the pharmaceutical industry and documented cases where the pursuit of commercial interests have targeted vulnerable or disadvantaged groups and competed with public health concerns,” states the report. 

However, the report fails to consider the specific, quasi-legal (or tolerated) model of Cannabis Social Clubs (CSCs), which already drew these lessons.

Social clubs are part of the Law in Uruguay and Malta, and are part of legal order via jurisprudences in Spain,” points out Riboulet-Zemouli. “Although not ‘legalization’ per se, the experiences of Coffee Shops in the Netherlands and Cannabis Social Clubs in Spain and Uruguay have operated for several years and yielded early results on the prevalence and patterns of use among adults, including access for adults who do not necessarily have a medical marijuana prescription. However, these outcomes are not considered in the report.”

Although CSCs have yielded positive results regarding the impact of stable, non-illegal cannabis access on the prevalence of use among adults, the failure to consider, discuss or even mention Cannabis Social Clubs is detrimentally impactful to the accuracy of the World Drug Report.

One report states, “The moment you enter the door you are minimizing the risks. CSCs in Barcelona report similar findings. 

“Cannabis is the most consumed illegal drug in the world by far, and the number of consumers is rising globally.” This “high prevalence” is behind the fact that “40% of countries reported cannabis as the drug associated with the greatest number of drug use disorders.” The remaining information about cannabis is documented in previous reports. 

However, this data set is inherently flawed, as perhaps more consumers are simply admitting their cannabis use now that it is safe and legal to do so in certain jurisdictions. 

Also, member states may have a reporting bias towards the UNODC.

In an attempt to save face, or tone down the prevalence of substance use disorder within their countries, perhaps certain member states would prefer to disclose cannabis “addiction” rather than admit to the full-scale, harsher realities of heroin or prescription painkiller addiction. 

There may also be a bias in substance user reporting, as many consumers feel safer disclosing their cannabis use than their illicit drug use. 

The report claims that the ranking of which drug is purportedly to have caused the most significant number of drug use disorders in each country is determined mainly by two factors: prevalence of use and abuse liability, which can explain the high ranking of cannabis in drug use disorders and drug treatment. 

“A recent study estimates that recreational users’ chances of becoming dependent on cannabis after any lifetime exposure was 8.9%. However, as cannabis is the most prevalent substance in most countries, it can cause a relatively high number of drug use disorders and related treatment requests, even though it has a relatively lower potential to create dependency.”

Finally, the report devotes a two-page spread to the resurgence of interest in cannabis for medicinal purposes, citing that 34 countries (or UN member states) currently allow “cannabis herb for medical conditions.”

In 2020, member states reported 1,700 tons of medical cannabis stock, a drastic increase from approximately 200 tons in 2019. However, this reported increase may directly correlate to the legalization process. 

It is up to UN member states to self-report, with no mechanism in place for verification.


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