Burning of sassafras oil, Cambodia (June, 2008)

My little sister just moved to Cambodia to volunteer for an arts project for orphans in Sihanoukville, teaching them to cut and stick, and other important life skills.  So I thought I’d do a little digging into the current drugs situation in Cambodia.  While reading through the UNODC’s World Drug Report, 2010, I came across this interesting snippet:

In February 2009, the Government of Cambodia disposed of almost 15 mt of safrole-rich oils with an additional 5.2 mt seized in June 2009.

I hadn’t heard of safrole-rich oils before, so I did a little more research.   Turns out, they’re a key component in the production of ecstasy.  I’d always assumed that MDMA was a purely synthetic drug, manufactured in labs from chemicals.  I guess this just demonstrates my dumb understanding of science, because obviously the chemicals need to come from somewhere.  Safrole is extracted from various plants and trees in the form of safrole-rich oils.  It has legal purposes as well- it’s used in pesticides and fragrances- but it’s a controlled substance under the UNODC’s regulations.

The production of sassafras oil has significant environmental repercussions.  Flora and Fauna International (FFI), Wildlife Alliance, and Conservation International have all raised concerns that safrole production in the Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia is wreaking ecological damage.  To produce the oil, entire forests of trees are often felled, and the oil is steam-distilled from the timber, root and stump.  The steam-distillation process takes five days, over wood fires.  It takes ten trees to provide sufficient fuel to distill one safrole-rich tree.

If drugs were legal, it’s possible that the production process wouldn’t be so environmentally damaging.  Or, at least we could attempt to regulate it so that it wasn’t.  In Brazil and China they’ve already developed new, sustainable plants, and there are obviously more efficient distilling methods than wood-burning fires.  But that’s unlikely to impact the current production methods for ecstasy.  I think I’ll bear that in mind next time I’m offered a pill.

Sources: The Irrawaddy News, ‘Harvesting Trees to Make Ecstasy Drug’ Feb 3, 2009,  UNDOC World Drugs Report, 2010,  UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Flavours and Fragrances of Plant Origin, TNI, “Withdrawal symptoms in the Golden Triangle: A drug market in disarray” 2009