Here at The Ring of Fire, we have covered several aspects of America’s opioid crisis, including its costs to society and how Big Pharma has been profiting – as well as its legislative efforts to keep cannabis (an effective treatment for opioid addiction) illegal. However, there is one cost that has not been widely covered in the media, yet has grave implications for all of us: the destruction of rainforests.

The phenomenon has been labeled “narco-deforestation.”  The term describes the wholesale destruction of rainforest habitats in Central and South America as drug traffickers dealing in heroin (chemically, virtually indistinguishable from prescription opioids) clear the land of trees in order to create their bases of operation and provide transportation routes for their products.

It has been fueled in large part by failed U.S. drug policy, which has focused on punishing buyers rather than going after suppliers and their infrastructure. However, the growing demand for opioids has also caused a surge in rainforest habitat destruction. Because heroin is easier to obtain than its prescription cousins (and usually less expensive), drug cartels have been working overtime in regions such as Guatemala and the Amazon River Basin to meet this lucrative demand.

Between opium production and the cultivation of coca (from which cocaine is manufactured), approximately 3.5 millionnacres, nearly 14,000 square miles of Amazonian rainforest have been destroyed, according to a report from the Organization of American States. More destruction is taking place in Central America in order to clear routes over which these drugs must be shipped. Drug cartels in Southern Mexico and Guatemala buy up land and clear away the vegetation in order to make roads and landing strips for aircraft, as well as to establish cattle ranches for the purpose of laundering drug money.

A study of this ongoing process published in the journal Science two years ago attributed  as much as half of all deforestation to the illegal drug trade. The problem is getting worse, driven by demand in the U.S. that increased four-fold between 2002 and 2013 – and has more than doubled among young adults over the past ten years, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control.

Are there any solutions? One of the authors of the study, a geography professor from Ohio State University, suggests that reforms in U.S. drug policy – treating users less like criminals and more like patients with serious illnesses – would help to reverse this trend. Given the position of the anti-environment Trump Administration that supports the private prison industry and a corrupt Department of Justice run by an incompetent, self-serving Imbecile, reversal on U.S. drug policy in this regard is unlikely any time soon.

However, Ben Hodgdon, director of forestry at the Rainforest Alliance, is working with local communities in rainforest regions to reclaim their historical rights and reoccupy those lands since the drug industry avoids setting up shop where such communities already exist.

Hodgdon’s solution is more likely to have a positive impact on this threat because the current, corrupt U.S. Administration has too much of a vested interest in the status quo to change its course on this issue.

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.