Trees for Ecstasy

Tuesday, February 4, 2009

safrole-burningMany people believe that ecstasy is merely a synthetic drug that is manufactured solely with chemicals, so-called precursors. However, the main raw material for ecstasy, safrole, is extracted from various plants and trees in the form of safrole-rich oils—also known as sassafras oil. Preventing ecological damage and unsustainable harvesting of safrole-rich oils is urgently needed to preserve fragile ecosystems.

These oils may contain safrole levels of more than 80 percent or 90 percent. They are usually first converted into chemical precursors before being diverted from the legal trade to clandestine ecstasy labs. Safrole and its derivatives have many legal uses as well. It is marketed worldwide in large quantities as raw materials for the fragrance and pesticide industries.

The main production area is Southeast Asia and China. The current production methods of safrole-rich oils endanger both the flora and fauna in fragile ecosystems and impact on the livelihood of the local population. To produce the oil, entire wild and often rare forest trees are felled and the oil is steam-distilled from the timber, the root and stump. The wood is chopped into small blocks and shredded. This is then distilled in large metal vats over wood fires for at least five days. The firewood needed to steam-distill the oil exacerbates the harm.

In June 2008, the Cambodian government set up a media show, burning 1,278 drums of safrole-rich oil, with the help of the Australian Federal Police. However, burning illicitly produced oils will not contribute to a long-term solution, and might even be counterproductive. Eradication of unsustainable safrole-rich oil production only makes sense when viable and sustainable alternatives are in place.

A more effective approach would be to involve all stakeholders: The people now implicated in the harvesting, who need to be educated on sustainable harvesting and distilling methods; the chemical industry, which needs to produce raw materials in a responsible, environmentally friendly way; academic institutes involved in developing alternative plants and harvesting methods; and development organizations to fund and design alternative development programs for environmentally friendly and sustainable production of safrole-rich oil.  

For more information see: Harvesting Trees to Make Ecstasy Drug, The Irrawaddy, February 3, 2009