Ecstasy is an environmental threat too?

Jan 15 2009 Published by under Drug Abuse Science, MDMA

Having just recently posted on the bust of an Ecstasy / MDMA lab based in a house, you might assume that I would be thinking a little more deeply about the whole illicit manufacturing process for MDMA. (In reading the article that launched that post, I'll remind you, I learned that pill press operations are a whole lot smaller scale that I might have predicted.) You would be wrong, because I find myself fascinated to read a recent article detailing the effect of the illicit MDMA trade on the trees and fauna of wilderness regions of Cambodia.


The connection starts with a natural product (Hi Abel!) that is a handy starting point for making MDMA. Let's start with the guy who would best know, Alexander Shulgin, who says:

First and foremost, the synthesis of MDMA is an illegal act and will, if documented in court, put you in prison for many years. And even the innocent search for some of these botanical sources can be just as nasty. There is a listing of chemicals that are used in the manufacture of controlled substances, (called List 1 by the DEA), that make the possession of any of these chemicals a reason to ask if you have the intent to manufacture MDMA. On that list there are explicitly named piperonal, 3,4-methylenedioxyphenyl-2-propanone (this is a synonym for piperonylacetone), isosafrole, and safrole. These are the exact compounds named above that are implicated in the synthesis of MDMA.
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So, where does safrole come from? Two of the major sources are botanically distinct sassafras oils.

For my part, I don't require any more support other than the word of Shulgin but if you care to Google the appropriate terms you will find a host of websites out there describing MDMA synthesis "for informational purposes" which support the idea that sassafras oil derived safrole is a key precursor for MDMA manufacture.
Turning back to the recent story on Cambodia we learn a number of interesting things:

The sassafras oil comes from the Cardamom Mountain area, one of the last forest wildernesses in mainland South East Asia.
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Cambodian sassafras oil is highly sought as it is of the highest quality - more than 90 per cent pure, according to the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Cambodia, Lars Pedersen. It is a major precursor drug used in the production of ecstasy.
"Massive amounts of sassafras oil are smuggled every year into Vietnam and Thailand from Cambodia," he said.
Sassafras Oil is made from the roots of the rare Mreah Prew Phnom tree - also known as Cinnamomum parathenoxylon.
[ED- a comment suggests this should be C. parthenoxylon]

Wait, what's that now? Shulgin didn't make any mention of this particular plant as a source of sassafras oil. Google is pretty much just turning up this article when I search for the plants Latin name too. hmm, any botanists around?

Apart from depleting the Mreah Prew Phnom, large numbers of surrounding trees are felled to maintain the fires, undermining the area's biodiversity. At the current rate, Mr Bradfield said, the Mreah Prew Phnom and other species would become extinct in the near future.
Animal life is also threatened. Deep in the jungle, the factories, which have two or three distilling pots each, are heavily guarded and require dozens workers to maintain the stills. These workers live on the surrounding wildlife in the area, with many involved in the commercial poaching of such rare animals as tigers, pangolins, peacocks, pythons, wild cats and wild fowls.
Streams and rivers are being polluted too by the effluent from the oil production. "There are frequently dead fish and frogs floating in the streams near these distilleries," Mr Bradfield said.

MonkeyEgg.jpg
return to hunt
I wonder how many of our MDMA promoting friends are of an environmentalist lefty-progressive political bent? Maybe they can get some sort of Econaut/Fair-Trade/Green certification of their Ecstasy supply in the future? "The MDMA used in this Ecstasy tablet was created using sustainable methods to generate the precursor sassafras oil..."
Anyway, think about it, you Ecstasy fans. It isn't just the heroin and cocaine users who are supporting nasty little environmental, political and social problems in the far off* lands which grow the plants used in the synthesis of their recreational drug product. Turns out MDMA is in the same boat.
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*for the majority of my readers anyway

13 responses so far

  • I wonder how many of our MDMA promoting friends are of an environmentalist lefty-progressive political bent? Maybe they can get some sort of Econaut/Fair-Trade/Green certification of their Ecstasy supply in the future? "The MDMA used in this Ecstasy tablet was created using sustainable methods to generate the precursor sassafras oil..."
    Anyway, think about it, you Ecstasy fans. It isn't just the heroin and cocaine users who are supporting nasty little environmental, political and social problems in the far off* lands which grow the plants used in the synthesis of their recreational drug product. Turns out MDMA is in the same boat.

    These "nasty little environmental, political and social problems" in far off lands would be dramatically ameliorated were manufacture of these drugs to be legalized and regulated.

  • Dan says:

    These "nasty little environmental, political and social problems" in far off lands would be dramatically ameliorated were manufacture of these drugs to be legalized and regulated.
    At least for the environment, I'm not sure that you're right CPP. Coffee is legal, and attempts to make it green notwithstanding, it is still a major cause of environmental damage in tropical forests. If legalization increased usage of cocaine, for example, there would be tons of damage as forest was converted into coca plantations.

  • Alex says:

    Weird to think of it, but in the 1990s it was almost considered green...

  • A botanist says:

    I couldn't find anything about Cinnamomum parathenoxylon either but I can tell you that Cinnamomum is a huge, taxonomically messy genus in a huge taxonomically messy family. And I'd bet if you can get safrole (or whatever) from Sassafras and Ocotea as well as Cinnamomum, it is probably very widely distributed.

  • Turkeyphant says:

    The article is rather vague on numbers and the actual threat posed but it is certainly concerning. As Comrade PhysioProf mentions, if MDMA production were properly regulated, safrole could be synthesised in bulk, avoiding the need for botanical sources. Furthermore, I suspect a great deal of safrole goes toward making pesticides.

  • Jon says:

    At least for the environment, I'm not sure that you're right CPP. Coffee is legal, and attempts to make it green notwithstanding, it is still a major cause of environmental damage in tropical forests. If legalization increased usage of cocaine, for example, there would be tons of damage as forest was converted into coca plantations.
    Think about what you just said though, there are ATTEMPTS to make coffee green (and it's getting more and more popular). There will never even be any attempts to make a drug operation green when the need for it to be clandestine is by far the most important thing.
    Not to mention the fact that any illegal operation is by its nature unregulated. There is no health inspector or EPA coming down to investigate how your plant is doing. If an official is coming down to visit you, you've got far bigger problems.

  • Aah, finally some ammo to use against my oh-so-trendy friends who still take E at the weekends while pretending to be cool by recycling the odd plastic bottle or buying organic food once a year! Yet another reason for me to become weary of recreational drugs...

  • What Cannonball Jones said. I am so posting that link on Facebook for the edification of that subset of my friends!

  • cashmoney says:

    I am so posting that link on Facebook for the edification of that subset of my friends!
    Every time you roll, a baby pangolin dies!
    Hey, this could be ONDCP's new ad campaign!!!!!11!!

  • Chris says:

    A little bit of trivia from 'ye olde dayes' at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hive_(website)
    The recommended method of obtaining the tree oil was to set up a candle shop, as sassafras has some similar properties to citronella, or a pleasing scent, or both.
    I miss that forum; even now when I don't do the drugs, that place had some fascinating threads on both synthesis as well as related social topics.

  • Becca says:

    Well I don't know about your hippie friends, but I'm glad to know why mine were really into homebrewed sassafrass tea (it's like normal rootbeer, only not as tasty).

  • Andrew says:

    There's a typo in the scientific name in the news story. It should be "Cinnamomum parthenoxylon" (not "para..."). You should be able to find plenty of info under that name.
    It'd be interesting to know (but probably nigh impossible to determine) what % of safrole used in MDMA manufacture globally was coming from C. parthenoxylon. I was under the impression (from reading The Hive back in the day) that an Ocotea was the major source of safrole. I suppose that also gets into questions of where the MDMA is being manufactured; locally produced SE Asian MDMA might well use C. parthenoxylon, with American/European producers going for Ocotea.

  • Mic Galvin says:

    I went trail riding 3x in the Cardamon Mts, 78km, 72km, and 58km. It is illegally logged 7 days a week by ex Khmer Rouge trucks and poached, grand plan hydro dams, it all starts with the chinese building roads. Sassafras for world ecstacy trade is the highest paying timber product. Unfortunately the Western powers keep Cambodia so poor they need to fund their military some how to defend their small country from the Thai trying to take their Sun Temple and the Vietnamese taking their land which is now small. Catch 22. So sad to see the worlds Mammal and Plant hotspot being destroyed however, one of the last big Asian Elephant populations left in the wild.

    It would be good if a sustainable way can be found that does not cause the destruction of this main characteristic tree defining the closed rainforest that which are the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world.

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