Environmentally-Responsible Drug Disposal

Did you ever wonder what happens to all the illegal drugs that get seized and confiscated by law enforcement every year? I got to wondering about it after stumbling across this article about environmentally-friendly ways of disposing of prescription meds. Well, I did some digging, and some of the answers are fairly surprising.

The United Nations has guidelines for the safe disposal of chemical precursors used in the drug manufacturing process, but that seems to be about as close as anyone gets to dictating how drugs should be disposed of. Burning seems to be a popular answer, but can be difficult under some circumstances, and may have undesirable short-term effects on those nearby.

Those crazy Russians have used marijuana as cow feed, but I think even the craziest Russian probably agrees that letting cattle eat even a couple ounces of cocaine or methamphetamines is a really bad idea, so that’s not such an usable solution. (Funny, I admit, but not usable.)

Burning in an incinerator seems the recommended method, though it appears that some agencies have other approaches. I’m particularly intrigued by a Canadian approach: mix with plaster or other substances and simply throw away.

Flushing of drugs is certainly convenient – and, let’s not forget, inexpensive – but is, apparently, the “least desirable” disposal method available. The plaster method sounds intriguingly simple and cheap; I wonder if that would fly here in the U.S.? Alternatively, for disposal of larger volumes of material, I wonder if there would be any adverse effect to adding granular/powdered narcotics to concrete or cement destined for a construction project? Cleanup might be an issue, as I guess it’d go right down the drain, which is, after all, to be avoided. (Then again, is concrete waste actually put down the sewer?) Perhaps mixed in with hot asphalt and used to pave roads?

Failing that, I spent a while looking for – and was completely failing to find – information on the decomposition of narcotics like cocaine, heroin, meth, or marijuana. If you dug a hole and buried your stockpile of seized drugs – mixed in with organic material designed to render it unrecoverable, like animal faeces, perhaps, or even roadkill carcasses – how long would it take to break down, and would there be any particularly objectionable byproducts? Anyone know? Anyone care to make an educated guess?

At first glance, it seems like a pretty environmentally-friendly, low-cost/no cost solution that scales fairly well to meet the varying needs of different-sized departments and agencies with different-sized disposal requirements… So what’s the catch? Is there a catch?

Published in: Geekiness, General | on March 23rd, 2009| 6 Comments »

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  1. On 3/23/2009 at 3:40 pm jfraser Said:

    I suppose that mixing a large quantity of marijuana, most likely containing seeds, with organic material (read fertilizer) and then burying it wouldn’t be the best approach. Leaching into the water table and attempts by people to dig up drugs (no matter what you mix it with, someone will try to get at it) may be other problems faced by this solution.

  2. On 3/23/2009 at 4:08 pm Nemo Said:

    I really know nothing about marijuana cultivation, but my gut instinct based on years of vegetable and flower gardening is that if you put the material far enough down – we’re talking one or two feet, here – it’s not going to grow, just rot.

    As far as leaching into the water table, unless you’re somewhere with a really high water table, I’m not so sure that’s an issue. But, like I said, the research on the decomposition of recreational pharmaceuticals seems to be largely nonexistent.

    I don’t really see people digging up the material as a realistic problem; I’m not envisioning dropping a plastic-wrapped bale of marijuana in a hole, and covering it with dirt, but mixing whatever happens to need to be discarded, in loose form, with, say, horse cow or dog shit, floor sweepings, cigarette stubs, and, oh, food waste from the break room, and throwing it, all mixed together, in a hole in the ground, then covering it all with dirt. Even if you did dig it up, and took all the dirt, I don’t see any even remotely practical way of separating the controlled substances from the dirt, excrement, food waste, and whatever else happened to get thrown in there. Goodbye, mind-altering substances; hello dirty stinking useless muddy mess.

  3. On 3/23/2009 at 5:20 pm Centribumble Said:

    The burning of marijuana and other organic drugs is a real pity as the plants could be put to so many other good uses, from construction to fuel to food.

    The disposal of synthetic drug is much more worrying. Take a look at this article, from the press a few months ago, about streams in India with enough antibiotics “to treat 90000 people”.: http://www.redorbit.com/news/health/1628532/pharmaceutical_waste_found_in_indias_streams/

  4. On 3/23/2009 at 6:55 pm jfraser Said:

    Re: Nemo

    I’ll agree that burying it more than a few feet down would solve the growing problem. Places like Florida, where a large amount of drugs are seized, have a very high water table: sometimes around 6-10 feet down in the southern areas. How realistic would it be for this to make a difference? Not very likely I would imagine.

    Would it be possible to dig up where the drugs were buried, soak it all in water or alcohol (whatever the drug is soluble in), filter out the solids and evaporate off the solvent? Impractical maybe, but for someone with time on their hands maybe?

  5. On 3/23/2009 at 9:29 pm Nemo Said:

    J: A quick test with some dirt from my garden and some isopropyl alcohol suggests that there’s quite a bit of material in “dirt” which is soluble in alcohol. I obviously don’t have any cocaine or methamphetamines to test this with, but I’d guess the best someone could hope to wind up with under these circumstances is a blackish crud that’s 99% non-drug organic gods-know-what.

    And, yeah, Florida does have a freakishly high water table; I was thinking more along the lines, though, of little police and sheriff’s departments in, say, rural Nebraska, or Wyoming, or somewhere like that – places that don’t routinely handle large volumes of narcotics, and who may well not have access to any higher-tech method of disposal. Given the choice between flushing it, burning it a wood stove, or burying it…

    I really wish someone had done a study on the byproducts of narcotics once broken down; it occurs to me that a bucket of drain-cleaner (Draino, Liquid Plumber, whatever) is almost certain to render pretty much any controlled substance permanently unusable; the only question is whether you wind up with byproducts that are worse for the environment than you started out with…

  6. On 3/24/2009 at 9:42 am tom Said:

    Hemp is a cellulosic fuel source. If that technology can ever supersede the cost advantage that corn ethanol has over cellulosic ethanol, one could probably find a local ethanol producer willing to process seized marijuana.