Ecstasy (MDMA) Threatens Rare Cambodian Tree
Photo: Monogrammed ecstasy pills seized from a lab in Indonesia (Microgram Bulletin)
What could ravers and other all-night clubbers of the world possibly have to do with the increasingly rare Mreah Prew Phnom trees (Cinnamomum parathenoxylon), found in Cambodia's rainforests? Well, a lot - according to the authorities of the Cambodian ministry of environment and conservationists who have shut down several distilleries which produce a type of oil found both in cosmetics and in the production of MDMA — or more commonly known as 'ecstasy.'"The factories had been set up to distill 'sassafras oil'; produced by boiling the roots and the trunk of the exceptionally rare Mreah Prew Phnom trees and exported to neighbouring countries," such as Thailand, Vietnam, USA and China, reports Fauna & Flora International (FFI), the conservation group involved in the recent raids.
This rare species of tree is found in Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary, one of the last wilderness reserves of mainland Southeast Asia. Of course, we are not here to rain on anyone's party or moralize about personal choices or drug use (whether it's cocaine, weed or ecstasy), but knowledge is powerful and can help people make informed choices that are ultimately more aligned with their personal ethics.
Ecstasy's life cycle: deforestation and water contamination
It is evident that the life cycle of sassafras oil production (and by extension, ecstasy) is taking an environmental toll that many may be blissfully unaware of.
This is how a tree is turned into colourful, euphoria-inducing pills:
- First, the roots are chopped into small blocks and shredded into a fibrous consistency
- The shredded roots are then cooked up in large metal vats over a wood fire for a distillation period of at least five days — which requires that a large number of other trees also be chopped down for firewood
- Safrole, a colorless or slightly yellow oil, is the resulting product, and is the primary precursor for all manufacture of MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine).
"Sassafras oil processing plants are usually located besides streams to provide water for boiling and cooling the distilled oil," says David Bradfield, adviser to the Wildlife Sanctuaries Project of FFI.
The oil often leaks into the streams, harming local wildlife and fauna. "There are frequently dead fish and frogs floating in the streams near these distilleries," Bradfield adds. The contaminated water from this area ultimately flows down into the rest of Cambodia through the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers.
Poaching: a side-industry
Workers who distill the oil deep in the jungle also often rely on poaching rare animals (tigers, pangolins, peacocks, pythons and wild cats) for food or for extra income on illegal wildlife markets. Poaching threatens the livelihoods of the estimated 12,000-15,000 hunter-gatherers who live in the wildlife sanctuary.
Lucrative but illegal
In an effort to preserve the rare Mreah Prew Phnom tree, the Cambodian government made the production of sassafras oil illegal in 2004. However, since the purity of Cambodian sassafras oil makes it highly sought after, it remains a lucrative trade, worth millions of dollars.
Bradfield warns: "The production of sassafras oil over the last 10 years has severely depleted these trees and if the illicit production isn't stamped out soon, they could become extinct in the near future."