Four square metres of rainforest are destroyed for every gram of cocaine snorted in the UK, a conference of senior police officers as told yesterday.
Francisco Santos Calderón, the vice-president of Colombia, appealed to British users of the class A drug to consider the impact on the environment. He said that while the green agenda would not persuade addicts to give up, the middle-class social user who drove a hybrid car and was concerned about the environment might not take the drug if they knew its impact.
Santos said 300,000 hectares of rainforest were destroyed each year in Colombia to clear land for coca plant cultivation, predominantly controlled by illegal groups, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as Farc.
Officers were told cocaine and heroin use cost the British economy around £15bn a year in health and crime bills.
Santos outlined to the Association of Chief Police Officers how lives were lost in the illegal cocaine trade in Colombia. He said landmines that were used to protect crops and processing labs killed almost 900 civilians this year.
Farc and other groups funded by narcotics production were also involved in kidnapping. The Colombian-French politician Ingrid Betancourt was held for more than six years before her release earlier this year, and Santos himself was kidnapped and held by a cocaine gang for 18 months in the 1990s.
He told the Belfast conference: "If you snort a gram of cocaine, you are destroying 4m square of rainforest and that rainforest is not just Colombian - it belongs to all of us who live on this planet, so we should all be worried about it. Not only that, the money that you use to buy the cocaine goes into the hands of Farc, of illegal groups that plant mines, that kidnap, that kill, that use terrorism to protect their business."
Santos said many middle-class Britons who used cocaine were unaware of its environmental impact. "For somebody who drives a hybrid, who recycles, who is worried about global warming - to tell him that that night of partying will destroy 4m square of rainforest might lead him to make another decision."
Santos said Europe was experiencing a boom in cocaine use among more affluent people that was comparable with that seen in the USA 25 years ago. Everyone, he said, had a duty to change their behaviour to halt a rise in demand that was destroying his country. "We call it shared responsibility, We can't do it on our own. We need everybody's action; police here, police in Colombia, the authorities in both countries and the consumers too. If there is no consumption, there will be no production.
"There is a sense of frustration, because here drug use is seen as a personal choice and to some extent cocaine is seen as the champagne of drugs which causes no effect and is a victimless crime. It is not victimless."
Bill Hughes, the director general of the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, told the conference that the UK was a very attractive market for drug traffickers. "There is still a lot of disposable income; the risk compared to the US if you are caught is felt to be much less," he said.
The £15bn cost to the economy reduced the amount of money available for schools, teachers and police officers. He said traffickers moved their drugs from South America to west Africa, and then to the EU and Britain, often operating through insecure countries with poor law enforcement. Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands were major staging posts on the trafficking routes and much of the synthetic drug market was supplied from the Netherlands. Hughes said the proceeds of crime were undermining or corrupting governments globally, with the trade worth £4bn-£6.6bn in the UK.