Climate Lessons from Cambodia’s Illicit MDMA Market

Cambodia’s experience with MDMA production offers important lessons about managing the environmental repercussions of illicit drug production, which are particularly important in the wake of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) held earlier this month.

As evidenced by the UNODC collaborative event at COP27, discussions about the intersectional nature of climate change and drug policy solutions are still in their infancy, but increasingly important to address.

The natural abundance of trees in Cambodia cinnamomum the genre turned it into a hotspot for MDMA production. Phnom Samkos Sanctuary, in the Cardamom Mountains, is home to almost all of them mreah prew phnom trees. For drug manufacturers, these trees represent an excellent opportunity to produce high-quality methylenedioxyamphetamine (MDMA) by extracting their safrole-rich oils. This is done by uprooting the tree, dismembering, shredding and finally boiling its roots for 12 hours.

The extraction of safrole oil harms the environment in several ways. Large swaths of rainforest are being cut down to make way for the construction of remote manufacturing facilities. The drug makers will then continue to clear the region to feed the large vats used to boil the tree roots. Furthermore, oil has been known to spill into surrounding streams, polluting Cambodia via the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. David Bradfield, an advisor to the Wildlife Sanctuaries Project of Fauna and Flora International (FFI) states: “There are frequently dead fish and frogs floating in the streams near these distilleries”, which are believed to be impacting the livelihoods of 12,000 up to 15,000 people.

As part of the mission to curb MDMA use and limit the environmental damage caused by its production, the UN, Europe and Vietnam banned the production and trade of safrole oil in 1999. They were followed by China in 2004, contributing to an accelerating industrialization of the Cambodian MDMA trade. At its peak in 2006, the FFI estimated that 75 distilleries of sassafras oil (a plant containing high amounts of safrole) were operating in the Phnom Samkos Sanctuary.

Cambodia would eventually follow the international pattern, banning the production and trade of safrole oil in 2007. This invited an intense crackdown that culminated in the destruction of 5.7 tons of safrole oil in 2009, which was estimated to it had a potential to produce 44 million ecstasy. tablets, at an estimated market value of $1.2 billion.

Cambodia’s crackdown has affected the international supply of pure MDMA, encouraging a turn to other viable alternatives. Underground chemists invented anethole oil to make paramethoxyamphetamine (PMA) or paramethoxyamphetamine (PMMA). It is chemically similar to MDMA in that it is a stimulant that has hallucinogenic properties, but has some alarming effects. PMA and PMMA are both absorbed more slowly, which means that people who take them may mistakenly believe that their medication hasn’t worked, encouraging them to increase their doses.

“They block the actions of brain enzymes that offset the desired effects of serotonin and dopamine release that PMA/PMMA produce. This then massively increases their toxicity, as the brain cannot compensate for the increase in serotonin, so users can develop serotonin syndrome. This is a toxic reaction that raises the body’s temperature to a dangerous and, in some cases, lethal level,” explained David Nutt, head of the charity DrugScience.

The decrease in MDMA production led directly to an increase in the consumption of PMA and PMMA. In 2013, 29 deaths in the United Kingdom and Ireland were attributed to the use of PMA or PMMA. Reports of these deaths “virtually disappeared” as the supply of MDMA improved. In countries such as the Netherlands, the use of PMA and PMMA has not been a problem due to the effective roll-out of national ecstasy testing systems that have been in place since the 1990s. This international crackdown on the supply of MDMA does not actually stop the use of drugs, but makes the products increasingly dangerous for unsuspecting consumers.

Additionally, by making the production and trade of safrole oil illegal, the Cambodian government has caused drug producers to continually relocate their businesses, causing further destruction. This is summed up by Kendra McSweeney, who explains that punitive measures create a “…cycle of eradication, resettlement, boom, eradication and resettlement…”. Drug cultivation is not stopped, only relocated, causing further ecological damage. This displacement effect is seen around the world, where drug producers destroy the surrounding ecosystem to evade law enforcement.

In Cambodia, the government continues to herald its drug busts as victories in the war on drugs, when in reality the market is only temporarily disrupted. As UNODC explained, the reduction in safrole oil production has meant that they are “increasingly targeted for illicit manufacture.[ing] of synthetic drugs”. This has contributed to persistently high levels of drug production, increased drug use and higher drug-related convictions, leading to prison overcrowding.

COP Global Stage

This article exemplifies the need to rethink enforcement policies and begin to engage more internationally when coordinating drug responses in the interests of public health and the environment. COP would be a perfect stage to start this global process.

UNODC’s involvement in COP27 is an important recognition that drug policies require international cooperation and have a negative impact on the environment. On 11 November, UNODC co-organised an event with the World Wildlife Fund on ‘The Environment-Biodiversity-Climate Crime Link’ alongside the release of their collaborative report ‘Crimes Affecting the Environment and Climate Change’. The discussion included Johan Bergenas, WWF Senior Vice President for Oceans, Monica Medina, Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, Dyeke Rogam, Deputy Director of the International Climate and Forests Initiative in Norway, and Ghada Waly, Executive Director of UNODC .

The event opened with a video entitled “Crimes affecting the environment” in which Jorge Rios, Head of the UNODC Environment Team states: “…criminal justice must be seen as one of the components of any solution… to address climate change…” . The narrative contributed to the sensation of the conference, where participants discussed how crime and, by proxy, drug production harms the climate. Dyeke Rogam spoke of the “convergence” of crime whereby criminal businesses such as “drug trafficking” overlap with crimes that affect the environment more, such as poaching, which is seen in Cambodia’s Phnom Samkos Sanctuary. In addition, Ghada Waly discusses the need for an international cooperation response to help combat “transnational organized crime.” Again, the situation in Cambodia would welcome this. The actions of neighboring countries have intensified Cambodia’s experience and their problems in managing the supply of drugs must be shared with the countries that feed the demand.

Although the event significantly missed key concerns that express significant room for improvement. The narrative of the war on drugs is informed by constant references to “criminal justice”. As expressed by Sweeney and the discussions in Cambodia, coordinating a drug policy around punitive measures further harms the environment and people’s health and well-being.

Next, UNODC must use COP events to continue its messages of international cooperation and the importance of the climate-crime link, while acknowledging the failures illustrated in Cambodia’s MDMA crackdown.

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