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The politics of contamination

Since entering office, the Trump administration has diverged from its predecessor on many fronts. Environmental regulation and drug control are two prime examples. Under Scott Pruitt, the EPA has loosened or eliminated numerous Obama administration rules on pollution and jettisoned climate-change research. At the Department of Justice, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has instructed federal prosecutors to seek maximum penalties for drug-law offenders and indicated a willingness to use federal powers to counter state and local marijuana decriminalization and legalization measures. These actions are at odds with prior Attorney General, Eric Holder, who sought to curtail mandatory-minimum charges and who generally declined to interfere with marijuana initiatives.

Thirty years ago, a similar period of flux occurred concerning drug policy and the United States’ commitment to environmental regulation at home and internationally. Between 1977 and 1979, charged debate about the extent to which the nation’s premier environmental law, the 1969 National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), applied outside of US territory collided with controversy over the US’s backing for spraying the herbicide paraquat on Mexican marijuana. At the time, and relating to today’s opioid crisis, the United States was in the midst of a wave of heroin abuse and since 1975 had partnered with Mexico to defoliate the poppies being converted into heroin. Washington supplied Mexico with helicopters, airplanes, spraying equipment, training, and funds in hopes of eliminating the poppies.

When not dowsing poppies, the Mexican government sprayed marijuana fields. While the herbicide 2,4-D was used on poppies, paraquat was applied to marijuana. Both herbicides were commonly used in each country, but paraquat was notably more toxic to human health. Unconsidered was whether any toxicity would persist if paraquat-coated marijuana was smoked. This question came to light in 1977 when reports of “paraquat pot” and afflicted smokers surfaced.

For marijuana-law reform advocates, namely the National Association for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the spraying was an affront from a Carter administration that had indicated support for rethinking marijuana regulation. Like today, a wave of decriminalization had occurred in the 1970s on state and local levels, with eleven states implementing forms of decriminalization by 1978. US underwriting of the paraquat program was a reversal of progress and NORML sought to hamper the spraying. Assisting NORML were other critics, including Congressional members from both parties who charged the Carter White House and the State Department—which oversaw the program—with endangering public health. In 1978 the controversy led to government studies which determined that some risk existed from smoking “paraquat pot” and resulting bi-partisan action soon threatened operations. Given today’s acidic politics, such a move seems downright bizarre—but Democrats, responding to outraged constituents and environmental concerns, and Republicans who wanted to damage the Democratic administration, came together to alter foreign-assistance legislation so that US aid for paraquat spraying was suspended. Aid for poppy eradication, though, continued unimpeded.

NORML tried to hobble the herbicide program with NEPA. The law required federal agencies to conduct environmental reviews of their actions (federal programs or programs receiving federal funding) that could affect the US environment, its citizen’s health, or the global environment (e.g. international waters). What was unclear, and the subject of multiple court cases during the 1970s, was if and how NEPA applied to US actions in foreign territory. Citing the studies on paraquat’s risk to marijuana users, NORML filed suit again the State Department for failing to comply with NEPA’s environmental review requirement before initiating the program in 1975. NORML demanded a suspension of operations until reviews were completed.

“tumult over toxic chemicals in the 1970s provided a powerful backdrop to the paraquat scare and helps explain why environmental concerns could disrupt drug control”

The suspension of aid to paraquat spraying was temporary and the NORML lawsuit only momentarily challenged the government’s ability to use herbicides in the drug war. What’s revealing are the debates within foreign-policy and enforcement agencies about how NEPA cases (such as NORML’s) were viewed as potentially serious impediments to government action. Likewise, tumult over toxic chemicals in the 1970s provided a powerful backdrop to the paraquat scare and helps explain why environmental concerns could disrupt drug control.

The outcomes of these episodes had significant ramifications. Environmental legislation never again stalled US support for defoliating drug crops (marijuana, poppies, and coca) and from the 1980s through the 2000s, herbicide spraying became a fixture in US drug control abroad. In the United States, the paraquat scare coincided with a shift away from relaxing marijuana laws and larger conservative resurgence. Over the next two decades, the reliance on punitive law enforcement, criminalization, and incarceration escalated. As in the 1970s, we are at a toggle point in our long war on drugs. The scale and demographics of the opioid crisis may offer a way to shift policy toward a public-health approach that emphasizes the role of social setting in drug abuse. But what’s clear is that a renewed drug war is wrongheaded.

Featured image credit: Poppy Sprayed with 2,4-D. Opium Destruction Slide: 170-S-4850-15, 35 mm Color Slides: Drug & Drug Law Enforcement Activities 1973–80, 4640 thru 5310, box 11, folder: RG 170-S-4850, Record Group 170-S Records of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, USNA.

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