War on Drugs Leads to Wholesale Rainforest Destruction

Photograph by Luke Duggleby www.lukeduggleby.com

Photograph by Luke Duggleby http://www.lukeduggleby.com

By Terry Gotham

I usually talk about how to reduce the damage drugs can do to people, but today I want to switch it up a little bit. I’m going to tell you about the Mreah Prew Phnom trees of Asia, the Sassafras trees of America, and how our voracious appetite for drugs is hurting them. This isn’t a story about water usage or gang violence, but of appetites. The explosion in popularity of MDMA has ensured one of the trees that produce a precursor substance, safrole oil, is now critically endangered. It’s estimated (not verified) that more than 5 million trees have been destroyed over the last 10 years.

Photograph by Luke Duggleby www.lukeduggleby.com

Photograph by Luke Duggleby http://www.lukeduggleby.com



Formally named Cinnamomum parathenoxylon, the tree grew in Bhutan, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan & Vietnam, but is currently most often found in Cambodia. The remaining population is clustered in the Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary, as cultivation of the tree is increasingly restricted. When the roots are chopped up and processed, safrole, an essential oil is produced. This stuff has been an herbal remedy, a critical part of perfumes, soaps & can be used to make MDMA.

Safrole oil from the bark of the Mreah Prew Phnom trees is exceptionally pure, so it can fetch a high price. There are occasionally ridiculous busts, as we saw just north of Seattle in late March. The largest bust in Cambodia is thought to be related to the growth of Novel Psychoactive Substances, if The Guardian and I are to be believed. As also discussed in the Phnom Penh Post, after large seizures of safrole oil, NPS pump into the market. Countries such as China and Vietnam began to tighten restrictions on production of the oil, so Cambodia bore the brunt of the market’s growing demand.

This has led to chunks of the sanctuary and parts of Southwest Cambodia being harvested for the roots of the tree illegally. And it’s not just the one species of tree that’s affected. Because the safrole distilleries are frequently hidden deep in the SE Asian jungle, to raise money to cover expenses while setting up distilleries, safrole manufacturers poach local wildlife to sell. Of course, it’s not just the odd animal or tree that’s being destroyed, we’re talking wholesale rainforest destruction. This also leads to pollutants from the distilleries ends up in the groundwater and downstream where it’s consumed by natives. Essentially, all the terrible things you would think would happen, are happening.

What does this mean? That the illegal nature of MDMA, combined with worldwide demand is leading to the obliteration of any plant that could create a precursor chemical. The same thing has occurred in the USA with Sassafras trees. Ever wonder why you can’t get real Sarsparilla anymore? You guessed it, the tree.

Interestingly, it was banned in the USA before MDMA was rediscovered in the 80’s. It was shown to cause liver damage, so it was banned as an herbal remedy, tea & perfume additive. The jury is still out on if the oil itself is cancer-causing in humans, but it has been shown to be a weak carcinogen in rats. There’s not been any evidence published that MDMA usage has caused cancer, even in extremely high doses. Unprocessed sassafras can still be purchased in its pure form online, just as a side note, so it’s puzzling as to where the line actually is.


This is where we’re at folks, and we need to start making hard policy choices. While there are some people who wouldn’t mind if every species of plant that produces this oil vanished from the face of this earth, MDMA may be the most effective way to help veterans cope with PTSD. Telling them they need to suffer because a tree is illegal seems uncaring, and the longer MDMA remains Schedule I, cultivation of the tree instead of illegal cutting remains one of the only ways to develop Safrole.

There has been some success at protecting the tree by the Cambodian government and other advocacy/protection groups. While aerial surveillance shows 4 remaining safrole distilleries within the sanctuary, this is down from a peak of 75 in 2006. However, as explained above, for every success, the world supply of MDMA goes down, driving demand for untested, unscheduled novel psychoactive substances. And herein lies the rub.

The War on Drugs is much more than a war on entire human populations around the world, it’s a war on the entire upstream and downstream ecosystems surrounding the chemicals & precursors in demand. As much as some Senators & paid spokespeople would like to believe this exists in a vacuum, they’re sadly mistaken. This is just one of hundreds of examples of how preventing consumers from acquiring the chemicals they want causes harm across the world.

If MDMA was rescheduled from Schedule I to II or III, producers creating the substance for prescribing purposes could plant acres of these trees legitimately, both in the USA & SE Asia. The slash and burn tactic would have no value, as the oil would no longer be so jaw-droppingly profitable. Additionally, it would eliminate the adulterant problem I’ve discussed exhaustively on this website and others.

While I’d love to be able to suggest that people who consume MDMA should try to “source” their drugs correctly to minimize harm, that’s just not possible while the substance remains illegal. There’s nothing users can do, besides switch to some novel psychoactive substance, which is similarly opaque & hugely more risky. But, in defiance of all good sense, that’s exactly what’s happening. The data is clear, as Safrole and Sassafras supplies dwindle, we’re going to see more and more Molly being nothing close to MDMA.

Policy makers seem unwilling to acknowledge this, but as adults we need to reconcile our supposed morality with the actual effects our choices have on the world. We can continue to maintain that MDMA is more damaging than the increasing pile of untested substances out there. But that means we must accept that the public will disagree and continue to purchase MDMA and other Safrole Oil derived products on the black market. Additionally, once the tree is gone, we must find additional ways to treat PTSD and satisfy the ever widening demand for safe recreational drugs in the USA, Canada and Europe. Bath Salts don’t seem to be the answer.

The problem of ecological & agricultural imbalance in response to the drug market is well documented. Whether it’s water usage for cannabis in California during the drought, abuse of water tables by authoritarian warlords who produce khat or opium while the people thirst, or even simply spiking the price of food because farmers know they can charge more for illegal drugs, it’s been happening for decades.

We’re in a place where the political will exists to have real serious discussions about this problem, so let’s keep sight of what’s important.

What can you do to help? Share this story, let’s get the word out. Awareness of the problem might help lead to the solution.

Photos provided by Luke Duggleby. Luke Duggleby is an award-winning British photographer living in Bangkok for more than a decade. For several years he visited the Cardamom Forest in Southwest Cambodia countless times to document issues related to the destruction of the forest. You can view more of his work on www.lukeduggleby.com, follow him work and travel on blog.lukeduggleby.com and follow him on Instagram @lukedugglebyphoto.

7 comments on “War on Drugs Leads to Wholesale Rainforest Destruction

  1. Pingback: Saving birds in Cambodia | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Sad thing is that there are other synthetic routes that don’t involve safrole – it can be made from 1,3-benzodioxole as well…..

  3. Sassafras albidum (the species in the US) is common and by no means endangered. It’s absolutely legal to buy and sell the trees.

      • Thanks. The FDA (as opposed to DEA) restrictions on sassafras products are confusing in their enforcement. You can buy sassafras concentrate (Google “sassafras tea”) and the FDA doesn’t care about sassafras leaves (“gumbo file”) at all.

        Might also be worth mentioning: Ocotea odorifera is an endangered South American species that is exploited for safrole production. There’s also the non-endangered Ocotea cymbarum. It’s not clear how prevalent the endangered species is in trade.

  4. It really comes down to trees or drug plants. I think the difference to the regional ecology is marginal, but when you consider how drug plants help the economy I’m leaning towards drug plants.

    • In this case, the trees ARE the drug plants. They’re not removing other species so they can plant a drug plant. They are removing the drug plant itself, which is now endangered.

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