Some people insist that cocaine is vegan. Others cite a mountain of evidence to the contrary.
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
Though she’s been vegan for the past five years, Kaitlin* cheats sometimes. She eats honey. She wears the leather clothing she’d owned long before she adopted a vegan diet. Recently, she bought a pair of new shoes that were a steal on sale, and she didn’t return them after learning they were made of leather. “I might not match up with whatever the dictionary defines as vegan,” she tells me. “I'm not perfect. I have vices like everyone else.”
She went vegan cold turkey one day five years ago. It began as a bid to lose weight. She’d grown up in the South with meals that orbited around meats, so she’d gone from eating beef brisket one night to a fully plant-based diet the next morning.
After roughly six months of eating vegan, she started reading and watching videos that gave her more insight into how animals are treated on factory farms. She cried. It was a turning point, she says; right then and there, she went from being vegan for health reasons to ethical reasons. “I figured I could eat things pretty conveniently without hurting animals,” she says. “So there was really no need to eat them at all.”
Three years after she went vegan, her financial circumstances shifted, too. She found herself able to afford the luxury of experimenting with recreational drugs. So she decided to try some things she’d never put in her body before, including cocaine. It seemed permissible to her. How, she wondered, could animals possibly be harmed by growing marijuana, psilocybin mushrooms, or coca—the plant from which cocaine is derived—or by synthesizing MDMA, 2CB, or LSD? They couldn’t be, she figured. Isn’t cocaine technically vegan?
“I probably rationalize things by telling myself that cocaine in and of itself doesn't have to harm animals, people, or the environment, especially if it was made legally in a lab,” she says to me. “If it were legal to make, it could be done without all the negative things we all know surround it, right? In some fantasy world, we could grow organic, sustainable coca plants and appropriately control and dispose of all the harsh chemicals required to extract the active chemical. We could regulate the sale, and get rid of all the violence that surrounds it.”
This fantasy is grievously far from the realities of cocaine harvesting and the networks that support cocaine production and consumption, realities Kaitlin admits she isn’t quite privy to from where she’s standing. The long-standing argument over whether cocaine is vegan has been the subject of forum discussions and LiveJournal entries for years. It’s a specious line of thinking that many people within the Venn Diagram of vegans and cocaine users subscribe to, even though it’s been challenged time and time again along ethical and environmental lines.
"If it were legal to make, it could be done without all the negative things we all know surround it, right? In some fantasy world, we could grow organic, sustainable coca plants and appropriately control and dispose of all the harsh chemicals required to extract the active chemical."
“I don't know—are sulfuric acid, potassium permanganate, sodium carbonate, kerosene, acetone, and hydrochloric acid considered vegan?” Kendra McSweeney asks me. “Besides coca leaf, these are the chemicals required to produce cocaine.”
McSweeney is a professor at Ohio State University's Department of Geography whose work, which involved embedding in Honduras’ La Mosquitia region, has focused on the widespread deforestation wrought upon pockets of Central America by cocaine farming and trafficking. “Whether or not you care would presumably depend on whether or not you're primarily an ethical vegan who cares about all living things, or an environmental vegan who feels that eating otherwise harms the planet,” she explains to me. “If the latter, then nope, cocaine's not part of a truly vegan diet. If the former, maybe it's justifiable to you.”
Cocaine is extracted directly from the coca plant, its leaves plucked, ground, pulverized, and mixed vigorously with a base that’s usually lime salt and kerosene. The resultant solution is eventually filtered and then dried into a paste, and the excess product gets tossed into surrounding bodies of water.
There is, in other words, “environmental degradation at every step of the production chain,” as Liliana M. Dávalos-Álvarez of Stony Brook University’s Department of Ecology and Evolution tells me. “Coca farmers uniquely grow coca on fragile slopes because that's one place to hide it,” Dávalos-Álvarez says. “To the extent that it has been measured, coca farming uses more herbicides to clear the land prior to cultivation than other crops. Processing takes place in nearby bush labs that dump their effluents into water bodies, with little regard for the wellbeing of others in the community.”
Dávalos-Álvarez’s research has focused on the deleterious effects of coca farming within Colombia upon vulnerable animal populations. It’s a cycle wherein animals are certainly one part of the collateral damage of the network that feeds global demand for the drug, she says.
“The networks of trafficking once specialized on this one commodity—cocaine—now traffic in timber, gold, and wildlife, emptying the remnant forests of the Amazon and the Andes of their animals and stripping even the very top soil,” she says. “That some consumers might convince themselves their choices are somehow defensible in light of the absence of animal content in cocaine is a travesty of environmental ethics.”
Still, when presented with these arguments, most of the vegan cocaine users I speak to are relatively nonplussed, including those who imagine themselves to be the most principled when it comes to the rest of their diet and lifestyle.
Kaitlin hesitates, for example, when I show her a recent polemic against vegans who do cocaine. There’s something about the tone of this, and other, impassioned treatises that gives her pause. She wonders if those who take pleasure in attempting to dispel the notion of cocaine being vegan are really just embodying societal disdain for vegans, seeking any opportunity for scrutiny of their habits.
“That some consumers might convince themselves their choices are somehow defensible in light of the absence of animal content in cocaine is a travesty of environmental ethics.”
“Are vegans held to a higher standard than everyone else?” she asks me. “Is that because vegans tend to be so judgemental of how others eat that we need to judge them back with more ferocity, in all the different choices they make?”
Arnold, a 20-year-old sophomore at George Washington University, has been vegan for a year and a half. He credits his diet with transforming his physique—he’s shed nearly 100 pounds, dropping from 225 to 140, and reduced his BMI from 37 to 23. He’s grown so fierce in his devotion to veganism that he’s recently begun toying with vegan activism.
He’s also done his fair share of cocaine in his life, using it recreationally since his junior year of high school. He doesn’t consider it vegan, per se, but he also doesn’t see any moral or ethical quandaries with cocaine consumption. Rather, he likens the use of cocaine to encountering other “non-vegan stuff,” such as cellphones full of conflict minerals that are constructed by child laborers in China—infinite chains of relatively unavoidable ethical discrepancies that he doesn’t see as contradicting his love of animals.
“Veganism is more focused on getting people off the food, clothing, and entertainment,” he insists. “Other stuff like drugs and electronics are less of a primary focus.”
He says he’s unswayed by arguments about environmental disturbance, too. “Veganism is about animals, after all,” he reminds me. “I do other shit like drive my car around at ten miles per gallon, or smoke lots of weed. There’s always going to be some unethical effects of what you’re doing. Not eating 200 or more animals per year is good enough for me, and is way more beneficial to animals and the environment than abstaining from a half gram of coke.”
The pretext that ignorance is bliss, that turning a blind eye to the knots and wrinkles in supply chains can absolve consumers of culpability, is a refrain I hear from other vegans who don’t see their cocaine use as evidence of hypocrisy.
“It’s kind of like how some alcohol isn’t vegan because there are animal bladders involved in making it somehow,” another woman, Mackenzie, told me. “Like, I don’t want to eat an animal bladder, but if one touched my wine, I guess I can live with that.”
Or take Aaron, a 24-year-old Queens man: “If someone told me my favorite liquor contained something non-vegan, would I quit drinking it? No. My logic is probably flawed, but I’m not about to stop fucking with things that I enjoy.”
"Not eating 200 or more animals per year is good enough for me, and is way more beneficial to animals and the environment than abstaining from a half gram of coke."
It’s also coupled with a vague sense of powerlessness, and, thus, futility in trying to resist that at all: “Well, if I stop doing coke, all that shit will still be happening, so my small contribution of quitting won’t change a thing,” another person, Renee, wrote me.
John Joseph McGowan finds that particular rationale to be, plainly, bullshit. He rose to fame three decades ago as the lead singer of the legendary New York hardcore band Cro-Mags, and he’s become one of the more outspoken advocates of plant-based diets as pathways to sobriety, including authoring a book called Meat Is for Pussies.
McGowan, 55, first got into raw foods in 1981 when he began working at a health food store. He turned to cocaine in 1987, a rough patch for Cro-Mags and a period when he began associating with people who got high, and, in particular, liked to freebase.
“I’ll never forget it,” he says of his initial experience with cocaine. “The first thing I said was, ‘Now I know why Bruce Lee did coke.’”
On the first night he did cocaine, he’d slept at an acquaintance’s place in Florida; that acquaintance had stolen cocaine from a group of men he barely knew. The next morning, the men from whom the cocaine had been stolen rolled up with two AR-15s and emptied two magazines into the room where he was sleeping. Bullets missed McGowan's head by inches.
Still, this didn’t deter him from the drug; his soon-insatiable appetite for cocaine led him down a jagged, violent path. He credits his cocaine addiction with some of the lowest periods of his life, a dance at the doorstep of death. “It took two years and several more experiences to say, ‘Hey man, I gotta get the fuck off this drug or I’m not gonna live,’” he recalls.
McGowan ate meals irregularly during this period, but always maintained his plant-based diet. He’d stay up for three or four days doing coke and freebasing, followed by a period of crashing out. Then, he’d wake up and drink large quantities of wheatgrass juice in an attempt to “detoxify.”
“I think that’s the only reason my health stayed together,” he surmises. “When I did eat, I was still eating organic, plant-based foods.”
McGowan eventually tunneled his way out of his addiction in 1990, but his experiences with drugs have endowed him with a sense of anger regarding those who see their cocaine use as acceptable under the standards of veganism.
“You’re not being an ethical vegan if you’re supporting cocaine use,” he says. In McGowan's mind, there are three main reasons for going vegan: ethical, environmental, and for personal health. He finds cocaine use indefensible amongst all three strata.
“Look what cocaine is doing to the environment and to very delicate ecosystems and rainforests that provide a lot of the world’s oxygen,” he tells me. “The same way they’re tearing down rainforests to graze cattle, they’re doing gross shit to grow cocaine because of the world’s demand for cocaine. If you’re looking at it for compassionate reasons, those animals are dying because they’re drinking that polluted water. If you’re looking at it as a point of personal health, well, what the fuck are you doing putting that shit in your body?”
McGowan speaks forcefully about what he sees as the fictions people tell themselves to justify risking their bodies in the same ways he once did.
To him, it’s simple, really, when it comes to cocaine: “That shit ain’t vegan, man.”
* Names have been changed to protect the identities of sources who weren’t comfortable discussing illegal activities under their own names.