Illegal factories in the deep jungle forests of Cambodia are increasingly important in the illicit production of precursor chemicals used to manufacture MDMA or ecstasy. The critically rare tree, Mreah Prew Phnom, contains relatively high levels of the safrole oil which is used in ecstasy manufacture. Although safrole oil has many legal applications such as for insecticides, cosmetics and fragrances, the Cambodian Government took steps to ban the use of the trees in 2004 as numbers were dwindling and illegal trade was increasing.
As with other illegal drug manufacturing such as cocaine or opium, farmers, landholders, workers and manufacturers who are involved in the extraction of safrole oil consider the risks outweigh the potential rewards that can be made from being involved in the drug trade. Cambodia is one of Asia’s poorest nations with up to 26 percent of the population earning less than US$1.25 per day which is considered the international poverty line. Many rural farmers struggle with poverty, environmental disasters such as floods or droughts, increasing costs of produce and family needs. The lure of making enough money to support their family is difficult to resist. Despite laws protecting the mreah prew phnom tree, the Cambodian government has discovered a number of illegal factories in the country. In 2009, the Cambodian Government confiscated 33 tonnes of sassafras oil which was enough to be made into 245 million ecstasy tablets.
Ecstasy, or MDMA, is a powerful psychoactive drug with hallucinogenic and stimulative properties. 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA) is a white crystalline salt that produces feelings of euphoria, intimacy, self confidence and peacefulness. This chemical is produced through a complex processing of a number of substances which include safrole oil to make the powerful drug, MDMA. MDMA is one chemical that may be present in the street drug, ecstasy. On average, an ecstasy tablet will only contain 10 percent MDMA and some research suggests that less than 15 percent of ecstasy tablets contain MDMA as the sole active ingredient. Typically, ecstasy is made up of a mixture of MDMA, amphetamines, PCP, ketamine or methamphetamine plus binder ingredients such as chalk and glucose.
The 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health in the United States estimated that 15.9 million people had taken ecstasy in their lifetime, with nearly 700,000 in the month prior to the survey. Ecstasy can range in potency, reactions, size, color and shape. Ecstasy is a popular drug among clubbers and young people who take the drug recreationally to enhance the experience of clubbing and dance music. Ecstasy is usually taken orally though some people inhale, inject or take it in suppository form
MDMA has been dubbed an empathogen; a drug that encourages empathy. Users of MDMA report feelings of empathetic understanding, profound feelings of ease, calmness, loving and meditative. These effects can be invaluable in psychotherapy where sensitive, negative and painful memories are explored. Prior to the drug being listed as a schedule 1 drug, MDMA was successfully used by therapists and psychiatrists to treat patients who suffered from a range of conditions including depression, phobias, post-traumatic stress and anxiety.
Safrole extraction is the cause of significant destruction of sensitive natural environments in Cambodia. The sassafras trees are cut down to get to the roots that contain large amounts of safrole. Many of the illegal safrole oil distilleries are located in the Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary within the Cardamon Mountains. This is home to the aromatic tree known as Mreah Prew Phnom or Cinnamomum Parthenoxylon. This species is incredibly rare throughout Cambodia and on the critically endangered list in Vietnam. The Cardamon Mountains in South Western Cambodia is the site of much of the safrole production. This region is dense tropical rainforest that is relatively isolated but considered a very important ecological site. The region has not been extensively explored but is known to have a large number of wildlife. Up to 62 animals and 17 tree species are on the globally threatened list. The Cardamon Mountains includes the largest population of Asian elephants, Indochinese tigers, clouded leopard, Malayan sun bear and pilated gibbon. The rivers that are in the region are home to both Irrawaddy and Humpback, very rare Siamese crocodiles and the nearly extinct batagur baska, or the royal turtle.
Manufacturers require four substantial mreah prew phnom trees to make one 40-gallon barrel of safrole oil. In addition to these trees, others are needed for fuel and housing for the workers. They may also rely on poaching wild animals such as wild cats, birds, monkeys, snakes and other mammals for food or to subsidise their incomes. The roots of the mreah prew phnom are shredded and boiled to extract the oil which is then distilled over heat for up to 12 hours. To heat the roots to boil, large amounts of forest wood is required and increasing mountain regions are being stripped of trees. Many of the sites are ad-hoc laboratories that leave toxic sites and damage the delicate ecosystems. Traditionally, safrole oil was used in remedies but on a much smaller scale. The increase in manufacture has contributed to massive deforestation of areas and erosion which is causing other natural disasters such as droughts and flooding.