Harvesting trees to make ecstasy drug

03 February 2009

In June 2008, the Cambodian government set up a media show, burning 1,278 drums of safrole-rich oil—a key ingredient in the manufacture of the illicit recreational drug ecstasy—with the help of the Australian Federal Police (AFP). The amount of oil could have been used to make an estimated 245 million ecstasy tablets with a street value of $7.6 billion in Australia, the AFP claimed. While thick black plumes of smoke went into the air, Australian police officers, who had traveled to Cambodia to assist in the public burning, looked on wearing chemical suits and breathing apparatus.

In June 2008, the Cambodian government set up a media show, burning 1,278 drums of safrole-rich oil—a key ingredient in the manufacture of the illicit recreational drug ecstasy—with the help of the Australian Federal Police (AFP). The amount of oil could have been used to make an estimated 245 million ecstasy tablets with a street value of $7.6 billion in Australia, the AFP claimed. While thick black plumes of smoke went into the air, Australian police officers, who had traveled to Cambodia to assist in the public burning, looked on wearing chemical suits and breathing apparatus. Many 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. 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. Burma is a significant producer of safrole-rich oils, locally known as thitkado. The word literally means “fragrant tree” or “good smelling tree” (thit means wood or tree, and kado means fragrant). Thitkado is also locally used as a traditional medicine—applied externally against skin diseases and rashes and for inhaling. Precursor control is the “second front” of international drug control. It became part of the international drug control agenda in 1988 with the adoption of the Convention against the Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. To prevent the diversion of precursors and essential chemicals from licit channels to illicit drug manufacture through an import-export pre-notification system, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) has developed special guidelines. Safrole and safrole-rich oils are both scheduled on the Red list of the INCB and are subjected to controls. As the demand and supply of drugs still cannot be controlled, preventing the diversion of precursors to produce them has become one way to reduce the supply. However, precursor control suffers from the same setbacks as the fight against drugs in general: despite increasing control mechanisms, the market is not really affected. Ineffective Approach The public burning in Cambodia was staged with the help of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which has been sounding the alarm bell on the illicit trade in safrole-rich oils for some years already. “Law enforcement is the key to suppressing the illegal trade in sassafras oil,” said Lars Pedersen, the Cambodia UNODC chief. “It’s a very lucrative trade, worth millions and millions of dollars.” Conservation organizations such as Fauna and Flora International (FFI), Wildlife Alliance and Conservation International have joined the fight as well. According to David Bradfield of the Wildlife Sanctuaries Project of FFI, safrole production in the Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia is wreaking ecological damage. “The production of sassafras oil over the last 10 years has severely depleted the trees and if the illicit production isn't stamped out soon, they could become extinct in the near future,” he warned. The livelihoods of 12,000 to 15,000 people in the wildlife sanctuary are at risk. Cambodian authorities dismantled more than 50 clandestine laboratories and arrested 60 to 100 people involved in safrole production in the past few years. Some 50 rangers from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry are policing the area with financial support from conservation organizations and the UN Development Programme (UNDP). 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. According to TNI research in northern Burma, for every safrole-rich tree, ten other trees are needed to distil the oil. A survey in East and Southeast Asia by the UNODC in 2006 found 361 plants that are rich in safrole, mostly of the cinnamon tree species, such as the camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora)—a large evergreen tree up to 20-30 meters tall common in Southeast Asia. A More Common Sense Approach In most species, safrole is in the root and the stumps. Nevertheless, some plant species make it possible to extract the oils from leaves and twigs and can thus be harvested in a sustainable manner. In China and Brazil, experiments with new, sustainable plants and trees are well advanced—in particular some Cinnamomum species and the Pimenta longa (Piper hispidinervium), which has been introduced to Yunnan from Brazil, by the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden in China's Yunnan Province. Although the worry about the ecological damage is justifiable, questions remain about the effectiveness of public burnings. The approach might backfire by driving up the price and attracting more illegal harvesters. It is also questionable whether all the oil was destined for ecstasy laboratories since the bulk of the oil is still used for legal purposes. A wiser approach might be to sell the seized oil to the chemical industry and use the proceeds to set up sustainable production of safrole oil, providing livelihoods for the people involved. Safrole-rich Oil in Burma Burma produces more safrole-rich oil than Cambodia, according to a survey in East and Southeast Asia by the UNODC in 2006. The aggregate annual production of safrole-rich oil in the region is estimated at 1,500 tons. China produces about 800 tons, Burma 230-490 tons, Cambodia 250 tons, Laos 45 tons and Indonesia 35 tons. The Chinese chemical industry is the major end-user of the oils. Production in China has declined over the years, due to increased controls since 2005. Vietnam was a major producer of safrole rich oil until 1999, when it was prohibited because of damage to the environment. However, Vietnam continues to import it for re-export to third countries. All countries in the region have regulations to control the harvesting and production of safrole-rich oils, including export and import. In Cambodia, Laos and Burma, these measures apply to all non-timber forest products; only China and Vietnam have specific legislation. The increased control in China and Vietnam, the two major trading countries, seems to have shifted production to countries were controls are less strict and law enforcement capacity is low, such as Burma, Laos and Cambodia. The National Narcotics Control Commission (NNCC) of China for instance reported the import of large quantities of safrole-rich oil from Burma in 2004-2006. Permits were issued by the Burmese authorities to companies to harvest wood for oil production at the Tamanthi Hydropower Project in the Chindwin River in Sagaing Division near the border with India, where a dam would eventually cause submersion of large tracks of land the area. Five companies were licensed and each operated about 50 small stills to produce 340 tonnes of thitkado oil for export to China. Illegal production of the oils and export to China also occurred; 115 tons were seized during 2002-2005 along smuggling routes from Sagaing Division to Yunnan. TNI research in 2008 found that thitkado oil is produced and traded in Kachin State. According to a Burmese government official, safrole-rich oils are produced in the country, but production is declining. He mentioned that trees in Kachin State were depleted. Since 1998, the main production area was the Nhkai Bum Mountains, but this area is nearly completely deforested. The main production areas now are the Danai, Hpakant and Inndawgyi regions in Kachin State, and the Hkam Ti region in Sagaing Division. The oil is bought by Chinese traders. According to a Kachin businessman, the Chinese market for thitkado oil is in Mangshi and Zhangkhong, a small border town north of Ruili and opposite of Mai Ja Yang. Most oil comes through Laiza, a border town controlled by the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), and some comes from Nawng Tau, a border town near Ruili where illegal timber logging moves across the border. The KIO prohibited thitkado production in the areas under its control in 2006. The wood had become scarce and producers had to go deep into the forest to find the remaining trees. Nevertheless, the KIO still gave permission to harvest trees occasionally. Prices are increasing, say several sources. Until 2007, one litre could be sold for 60 yuan, but due to the increased shortage of trees, the price increased to 90 yuan in 2008, according to a trader in Ruili. Most people involved in the harvesting of trees are unaware of its commercial use. Some erroneously suspected that it was used for yama, or methamphetamine. One thought it was used to make an atomic bomb, indicating the level of secrecy surrounding the trade. The main tree used nowadays, according to TNI researchers, is the Laukya Mwe, the Burmese name for the Schima wallichii or the Chinese guger tree or needle wood. Before it used to be the Payok pin, the Burmese name for the Cinnamomum camphora or Camphor tree. Another tree identified in Kachin State at the Chinese border is the Kum krung, very similar to Sassafras Tzumu, according to TNI researchers. Only the bark is used and sold in China. According to research in China, the bark of the Sassafras Tzumu has very high safrole content (97 percent). A Better Way Forward As noted, Safrole-rich oils are not only produced for the manufacturing of ecstasy, but are the raw materials for many legal products. Current safrole production is not meeting the market demand and the destructive extraction process raises serious concerns about the long-term availability of safrole. Preventing ecological damage and unsustainable harvesting of safrole-rich oils is urgently needed to preserve fragile ecosystems. However, burning illicitly produced oils will not contribute to a long-term solution, and might even be counterproductive. It is yet another example of a simple-minded law enforcement approach that also has not been effective to reach a sustainable decline in illicit opium cultivation—as has been described in the recent report “Withdrawal Symptoms in the Golden Triangle: A Drug Market in Disarray.” Lessons learned from alternative development programs to counter the illicit cultivation of opium in the region have to be taken into account to design an effective policy. 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: Withdrawal Symptoms in the Golden Triangle: A Drug Market in Disarray, by Tom Kramer, Martin Jelsma and Tom Blickman; Transnational Institute, January 2009. www.irrawaddy.org

Tom Blickman is a researcher with Transnational Institute.