PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The pulse of dance-club music plays like a jungle beat, as thumping bass notes flirt with flashing lights, liquor and ecstasy of the pharmaceutical kind.
Miles and miles away, a little-known multi-billion dollar battle is playing out in the remote wilderness of Cambodia, linking the club scene to the jungle in a more nefarious way.
Clandestine factories deep in the Cardamom Mountains of western Cambodia are producing safrole oil — also known as sassafras oil — the main ingredient in the party drug Ecstasy.
The recreational drug produces a euphoria its users say is so good even yawning is unparalleled while under its influence. But this euphoria is not without its downside — and not just the toll it takes on the brain, which at least one animal study shows can still be detected seven years from the time of use.
There is a growing, and perhaps just as deadly, price being paid by the local environment. Trees containing the viscous, fragrant, safrole oil are felled during 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.
Add destruction of the environment to the harms caused by drug prohibition. Of course, those readers following the news in British Columbia will note that this year police are trying hard to make environmental destruction about drugs, not about drug prohibition (the latest propaganda victim: outdoor cannabis growers who police are attempting to paint as eco-bandits poisoning the environment with “chemicals” and the like). Don’t let them. Non-black-market businesses could engage in ecologically sensitive harvesting and processing practices: criminal organizations do not. We have organic fair trade coffee: we could have organic fair trade cannabis and even ecstasy. But prohibition prevents this from happening.