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The sassafras tree and designer drugs: From herbal tea to ecstasy

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The following account reviews some aspects of the phytochemistry of Sassafras albidum. Its origin is found in a special topic lecture that I insert into the presentation of amine chemistry in the introductory organic course. A discussion of clandestine drug synthesis provides a far more interesting venue for presenting methodology for amine synthesis than the catalog approach that prevails in most textbooks. In the course of gathering material for this presentation, I became aware of the significance of the sassafras tree in the underground production of methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, ecstasy, XTC, Adam) (11) a controversial designer drug. After presenting some basic botanical information, a brief historical overview of medicinal interest in material from the sassafras tree will be given. This will be followed by a discussion of the chemical composition and utilization of the derived essential oil. The second portion of the paper examines the chemistry of amphetamines and their clandestine production. Finally, the designer drug, Ecstasy, will be discussed in detail and its link with oil of sassafras explored. Interwoven into this story will be a look at the mechanisms through which the federal government designs, enforces, and interprets legislation for chemical substance regulation.

Botanical Considerations

Taxonomically, Sassafras albidum is a member of the family Lauraceae, the laurels, which comprises approximately 40 genera and is represented by more than 2000 species. Numbered among this group are the camphor laurel and the cinnamon trees of the Orient and the West Indian avocado pear. Distribution of the Lauraceae is primarily throughout tropical southeastern Asia and Central and South America. In addition to sassafras, the California laurel, Umbellularia californica, the spicebush, Lindera benzoin, and redbay, Persea borbonia, are native to North America.

The sassafras tree ranges from Maine across southeastern Ontario to Michigan and south to Florida and Texas. Its preferred habitat is...