Cambodia's Forests of Ecstasy

Table of Contents

Annotated Bibliograpahy

Annotated Web Links

What is Ecstasy?




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The Impact of Sassafrass Oil Production for Illicit and Industrial Purposes on the World's Forests

tree used for safrole oil




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How is Ecstasy Production Effecting Cambodia's Tropical Forests?




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Possible Solutions





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Annotated Bibliograpahy

Number Reference Description

Yamaguchi, Adam. "Vanguard Journalism: Forest of Ecstasy." Current News. (accessed April 5, 2010).

Vanguard is a documentary series aired by Current News on Current TV, which is based out of San Francisco. The young journalists of Vanguard report stories from around the world that often go unheard or unnoticed despite their importance. One of these documentaries “Forest of Ecstasy” is the inspiration for my webpage topic. The documentary features Adam Yamaguchi of Vanguard who goes to Cambodia to report first hand on the impact the demand for MDMA, the chemical precursor in the drug ecstasy, is having on Cambodia’s pristine and until recently untouched mountainous tropical forests. Adam discovers that little by little the forest is being devoured from the inside out due to the trails blazed deep into the mountains by criminal gangs who are setting up illegal factories to produce safrole oil (aka sassafras oil, the raw ingredient for ecstasy) which comes from the trunks and roots of the rare Mreah Prew Phnom tree. While the Cambodian government is making a determined effort to root out these criminals and save the forests the lucrative drug trade and high demand for ecstasy is ensuring that this problem will not be dealt with easily or stopped quickly.


Miglierini, Giuliana "Sassafras Oil, a Key Raw Material Now Largely Banned from the Market." Chemistry Today 26, no. 5 (2008): 59-61.

For a significant period of time sassafras oil has been traditionally used as an important raw material in the production of chemicals used in the flavor & fragrances and insecticide industry. Safrole, the main component of sassafras oil, is the raw ingredient used to produce ecstasy which was first synthesized in 1898 by the German chemist Fritz Haber. Ecstasy can be easily synthesized starting from safrole and its cost is relatively low compared to classic drug such as cocaine or heroin. According to the annual report of the European monitoring centre for drugs and drugs addiction, the global annual production of amphetamines and Ecstasy is estimated to be around 520 tons. More than 95% of the world’s sassafras oil comes from the destructive harvesting of trees, most of which is illegal, and has resulted in over 500,000 trees being cut down annually to meet the demand. Sources of sassafras oil are becoming harder to find due to the traditional suppliers (China, Brazil, Vietnam) banning its harvesting due to its illicit uses (ecstasy) and to prevent further tropical deforestation. Unfortunately the demand has remained for sassafras oil remains, particularly for its illicit uses, and has caused a shift from traditional areas of production to virgin oasis’s of tropical forest particularly Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains. The best solution to stopping the deforestation caused by sassafras oil is to develop a synthetic version which is sustainable and environmentally friendly. A number of companies R & D departments are currently working on this task.


Campbell, Sam. "Harvested to Make Ecstasy, Cambodia's Trees Are Felled One by One." GlobalPost.,0 (accessed April 5, 2010).

In Cambodia’s tropical forest, particularly in the Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary, trees containing safrole oil are cut down in order to begin the manufacturing process. Their oil-rich roots are mechanically shredded and boiled in large cauldrons. The resulting mixture is then distilled over fires that require enormous quantities of firewood to fuel them. Safrole oil manufacturing is a big business, and as a result, severe deforestation and erosion scar the mountainous areas around the factories. The rickety improvised distilleries are perilous at best, and explosions are not uncommon. Nearby streams that provide water for processing are soon contaminated by factory waste causing the poisoning of a delicate ecosystem. Even the oil itself is carcinogenic. The western Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia are part of southeast Asia’s largest mainland contiguous rainforest and serve as the last refuge for more than 80 of the world's most threatened species, including Asian elephant, Indochinese tiger and Siamese crocodile. Safrole oil, which is also used in the production of cosmetics and in the traditional Khmer remedies, is produced from the aromatic oil of a tree known in Khmer as Mreah prew phnom, which experts think is Cinnamomum parthenoxylon. The species is generally considered rare, and in Vietnam, it is classified as critically endangered. It has no common name in English and no one knows how many of the trees are left in the world. Four Mreah prew phnom trees are needed to produce a single, 40-gallon barrel of safrole oil. An additional six trees of lesser value are felled to use as firewood in the processing of a single Mreah prew phnom tree.


Rocha, Sergio F.R., and Lin Chau Ming. "Piper Hispidinervum: A Sustainable Source of Safrole." In Perspectives on New Crops and New Uses, edited by J. Janick, 479-481. Alexandria, VA: ASHS Press, 1999.

This small chapter from the book “Perspectives on New Crops and New Uses” does not directly deal with Cambodia or the use of safrole or sassafras oil in ecstasy, but it does address the destructive deforestation used to produce it and provides an alternate plant to be used rather than the mostly endangered tropical tree species currently used to meet the demand. Piper hispidinervum or Piperaceae a common plant indigenous to the forest of Central America and the Greater Amazon has been found to contain high levels of safrole in its leaves (85% in unselected stock, up to 90% after selection).  The species is most frequently found on degraded forest, bordering primary forest or farm land where it occurs as a colonizing “weed,” either as a pure stand or along with other Piper species. On natural sites, plants develop initially into bushes and at an early stage they appear to inhibit growth of competing vegetation. As the plants age they become more tree-like, up to 10 m tall. Mixed planting of P. hispidinervum with cash tree crops is a practical possibility and would be economically attractive as leaf harvesting would permit an early cash return. Another production possibility is sustainable management in natural vegetation since it occurs in high populations in several open areas bordering primary rainforest. Reforestation projects, in natural or deforested gaps, could take advantage of the vegetative and productive potential of P. hispidinervum since it is a pioneer species.


French, Larry G. "The Sassfras Tree and Designer Drugs: From Herbal Tea to Ecstasy." Journal of Chemical Education 72, no. 6 (1995): 484-491.

This article highlights first the chemical composition of sassafras oil and why it has the hallucinogenic effect on the human mind in the form of ecstasy. French then goes on to explain how the drug came into being and how it was first used in the medical and psychiatric fields before it became a favorite party drug for rave goers around the world. French also addresses the emergence of the large underground industry created to supply the world’s demand for ecstasy and the detrimental effect this demand has had on the environment. The drug is particularly difficult for governments to combat due to its small size which makes it easy to smuggle and the flexibility of the source of production which can easily shift as governments outlaw the harvesting and exportation of sassafras oil (which we have seen happen production centers have moved from China to Brazil to Vietnam and finally to Cambodia) also makes ecstasy particularly difficult to deal with. French also comments on the dangers of the drug and the long term effects it has on the brain. Many complications associated with MDMA (ecstasy) are fatal, the psychological effects of the drug range from psychosis to depression to panic disorders.


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Annotated Web Links

Number Reference Description
1 aims to gather and make accessible objective, authoritative and up to date information about the drug ecstasy (principally MDMA).
The site is non-profit and is maintained by volunteers.
2 Contains general information on how MDMA (which more commonly known as ecstasy) is manufactured, used, effects the user, handled legally, how it effects the health of the user, and how its production effects the environment.
3 more news on ecstasy and the plight of the Cambodian tropical forests
4'_in_Cardamom_Mountains.pdf more news on ecstasy and the plight of the Cambodian tropical forests
5 more news on ecstasy and the plight of the Cambodian tropical forests


About the author:

This website was created by Robert Jonathan Dominguez a senior at North Carolina State University as a research project in FOR 414 under the supervision of Dr. Erin Sills.

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