Pubdate: Thu, 16 Jan 2003
Source: Missoula Independent (MT)
Copyright: 2003 Missoula Independent
Author: Jed Gottlieb


Through the window of his Montana State University-Bozeman lab, Dr.
David Sands can barely be glimpsed. Almost totally obscured by piles
of data and stacks of fungus-filled Petri dishes, patches of the
60-something scientist's cornflower blue Oxford show through.

There's a knock at lab door and a call. "Hello? Dr. Sands?"

"Yeah, I'm here," he responds from his hiding spot, poking out his
bald, bespectacled head. Even expecting invited guests, his voice is
apprehensive and unwelcoming. He doesn't get up but stays seated,
gently adjusting a microscope, and waits for the reporter to approach.

This is not the first time reporters have called on Sands. Between
1999 and 2000, he was hounded by media from all over the world--the
BBC, Mother Jones, the London Observer and Newsweek all wanted access
to the man and his groundbreaking research. Sands was one of the
world's few experts on mycoherbicides--fungi that kill other living
plants. Sands' specialty was a fungus meant to replace toxic chemicals
as the weapon of choice in a drug war battle plan designed to decimate
crops of coca and cannabis in the jungles of Colombia.

The press wasn't kind to Sands, or to his work. Mother Jones portrayed
him as a reckless scientist unconcerned about the potential health
risks posed by mycoherbicides to the Colombian people. Later that year
the London Observer reported links between Sands' private Bozeman
company, Ag/Bio Con, high-ranking U.S. military personnel, and Florida
drug czar Jim McDonough. As recently as last month, an article in
Counterpunch, which dubbed Sands' coca-killing fungus "agent green,"
drew a parallel between Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele's merciless
human experiments and a U.S. government proposal to spray Sands'
fungal agent over Colombia.

After being vilified by the media, Sands refused to talk about his
work for years-ignoring the inquiries of the international press, as
well as calls from the Independent and the Bozeman Chronicle. He
initially refused to be interviewed for this story, relenting only
after repeated phone calls and an agreement that he not have to answer
questions about the drug-related applications of his work.

The persistent scientific myth holds that practitioners fit either
into the Einstein or Frankenstein categories, benevolent or mad. After
being firmly consigned to the Frankenstein category, Sands seems
anxious to present himself as the Einsteinian humanitarian. Based on
the research Sands has pioneered since media and public criticism
convinced MSU administrators to pull the plug on his drug-related
experiments--mycoherbicides designed for weed control, land mine
detection with mutated mustard flowers, and the development of
natural, super-nutritious grains--the truth is probably that the good
doctor is neither mad scientist or gentle genius, rather something in

But with members of Congress pushing to reactivate research on
mycoherbicides, Sands may become a public figure again. Alarms have
already been raised by activists who hate the idea of American
imperialists running the show in Colombia, and by environmentalists
who fear that the Bush administration will dump Sands' mycoherbicides
on a swath of South American rainforest the size of California without
full awareness of the potential dangers.

Sands hears the new knock at the door, and he's already bracing
himself for the inevitable question: Will he forsake his MSU-sponsored
weed control, land mine detection and grain projects--none of which
bring in the big funding dollars--and use his private, home-based
company, Ag/Bio Con, to pick up where he left off a few years back,
once again hawking his fungus as a weapon in the war on drugs?

It was John Masterson's persistence that uncovered Sands' late-'90s
research on mycoherbicides. Without the lawsuit he initiated, Sands
and company could still be doing the USDA-funded research in secret.

Flashback to 1999

It's the final year of the century. Santana's "Smooth" is rocking the
airwaves, American Beauty is challenging cultural taboos, and Sands
and his cohorts at Montana State University-Bozeman are breeding a
super fungus to attack cannabis and coca plants.

The idea of using a fungal herbicide to kill drug plants has its roots
in the 1970s, when a natural outbreak began killing off coca in
Hawaii. By 1986, the scientific community had realized that a
biological agent that killed drug crops could prove to be a major cash
crop in its own right. In 1989, Sands began research on the
cannabis-wilting fungus Fusarium oxysporum.

For a decade the research went on at MSU-Bozeman without the general
public's knowledge. Then on March 29, 1999, Montana NORML (National
Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) Director John Masterson
received a clandestine e-mail. An unidentified deep throat, claiming
to work for the state government of Florida, advised Masterson he
should speak with the scientists at the MSU-plant pathology department.

"They said the Florida drug czar was looking at a plan to basically
fumigate the Everglades with this Fusarium oxysporum fungus," says
Masterson. "What this person had heard was that MSU was developing
this Fusarium oxysporum."

Masterson took the simplest route possible. He called MSU and asked if
the allegation was true, eventually speaking to Sand's MSU colleague
Dr. Gene Ford, who confirmed that university scientists were
developing mycoherbicides to attack drug-producing plants.

"He even mentioned that the fungus had been tested in a greenhouse
with cooperation with the Missoula police department," says Masterson.
So Masterson wrote to Missoula police, who told him they'd loaned some
lights to MSU's plant pathology department, but had no idea what the
equipment was being used for. Other than that, the cops said they knew
nothing about the alleged research.

Reaching a dead end in Missoula, Masterson went back to MSU, but found
that officials there weren't as willing to answer a second round of
questions. The university's legal department had stepped in.

Looking for leverage, Masterson contacted attorney Allan Lee, who
confirmed that MSU, as a public institution, had no right to keep
secrets from the public. If Masterson wanted answers, Lee would get
them. But Lee's first letters requesting access to the research didn't
elicit the response he was looking for.

"They said all the information was top secret," says Lee. "They told
me they had trade secrets with other parties and the contracts
stipulated secrecy. But they're a state-funded agency. They can't have
secret contracts."

Eventually Lee filed a lawsuit to gain access to the information and
MSU bowed to the pressure and began releasing documents.

"They said that this was all their research," says Masterson, holding
up a stack of papers a quarter-inch thick. "They asked us to settle
and we said we weren't going to settle, then they came up with another
stack of documents."

The second stack of documents was about three inches thicker than the
first. It not only confirmed the nature of the research, but revealed
that MSU's "secret" contract was with the U.S. Department of
Agriculture, which was funding the program to the tune of $3 million
over 10 years.

As Masterson began tipping the media and posting the MSU documents on
his Web site, the university found itself popping up in the press next
to the phrases "marijuana research," "drug lords" and "killer fungi."
The articles didn't neglect to mention Sands and the allegedly secret
work his private company was allegedly engaged in, beyond what might
be going on in MSU's labs.

Then-MSU President Mike Malone, citing safety concerns, finally wrote
to the government telling them the university was backing out.

"After much consideration, we have concluded that a university campus
with thousands of students is not an appropriate place for such
research," he wrote.

The university's blessing was gone, as was Sands' funding, and the
fervor. It seemed that Sands' research with killer fungi was done.

Will the real Dr. Sands please stand up

Three years later, Sands is still a professor of plant bacteriology
and still doing research. In his MSU lab, a large orange biohazard
sticker adorns the refrigerator. You've seen these stickers dozens of
times--in magazine photos, at the movies, on the yellow suits of men
doing dangerous toxic clean-up work. But all Sands has in his fridge
is mold and tomato juice.

"All it means is that you have something living in your fridge," he
says, popping the top on a can of spicy V8 with lightly age-spotted

The icebox could be filled with mycoherbicides or smallpox or the
fuzzy green leftovers you forgot to clean out before leaving for
Christmas vacation. But whether it's a biological weapon or a common
fungus, in a university lab the sticker has to be on the door.

Sands' fridge still harbors mutant fungi, but not the kind that kills

"As far as I know, that's no application that we have any interest
in," he says of his old research. "The University doesn't want us to
work in that area, and that's such a small area compared to the 200
weeds we need to control in the United States."

Whether he's continuing his old work at his private home lab is up for
debate. He says he isn't, but biological warfare and mycoherbicide
watchdog groups like the Sunshine Project and
suspect that Sands is still doing work for the U.S. government on
eradicating drug crops. The Sunshine Project's Edward Hammond, lacking
a smoking gun, points to Sands' $1,250 contribution to Sen. Conrad
Burns' 2000 re-election campaign.

Hammond and Masterson both think it's no coincidence that the year
before Ag/Bio Con's contribution, Burns urged congress for more money
to research mycoherbicides. Both also believe that when Burns and
other lawmakers reactivate the research, as they believe will happen,
Sands, as the nation's foremost expert, will be the government's
logical go-to guy.

But Sands says that's all in his past, emphatically claiming that he
is not now and will never again involve himself in drug-eradication
research, no matter how much research money the feds might throw at
him. Sands also mentions, by the way, that he doesn't want to put
himself in harm's way.

"It's easy for someone to get on a plane with a gun," he says
referring to the prospect of vengeful drug cartels.

He says his goal is to help the world as a scientist and humanitarian,
and not to be another meaningless casualty of the drug war.

Referencing new research and the 12-hour days he puts in at MSU, he
presents a reasonable argument that he has neither the time, the
desire, nor the funds to work on his old projects.

The main thrust of Sands' current research is aimed at the eradication
of noxious weeds, like knapweed. Garden-variety weeds may not be as
interesting as the war on drugs, but they do pose a serious threat in
Montana. The state spends in excess of $14 million a year to kill and
contain non-native weeds. That figure is expected to increase as
non-native species continue to encroach.

With the equally unpronounceable Noxious Weed Trust Fund Advisory
Council and Noxious Weed Seed Free Forage Advisory Council meeting
this month to discuss the difficulties of weed management, new ideas
will be welcome. Sands hopes the respective councils remember him
during their discussions, and bump up the couple of grand they toss
his way each year for research. He also hopes that talks steer away
from chemical controls.

"The principle of biological control is to take an insect or disease
and use it instead of Roundup [a popular chemical weed killer
manufactured by Monsanto]," says Sands. "Those of us in biocontrol
have been promising for years and years that we'd be successful and
that we'd be nature's friendly way of doing in knapweed, leafy spurge,
water hyacinth and so on. There have been very few successes."

So far, the use of chemicals has proven far more effective in
controlling unwanted plant life, but chemicals come with nasty
consequences, including poisoned water supplies and lowered animal
birth rates, most commonly associated with the chemical pesticide DDT.
Sands says that his technology, which is similar to what he was
working on in the '90s, is devoid of that sort of consequence.

"If we're smart, we're going to be both chemists and ecologists," he
says. "We're going realize that we will never eliminate knapweed or
even suppress it unless we find a way to make the pathogens better."

Sands says he's found that way: mutating pathogens that already exist
in the natural world to be stronger and more effective. But the very
idea of stronger and more effective pathogens sets some people's teeth
on edge.

The Fungus Among Us

The Sunshine Project's Edward Hammond, and Jeremy Bigwood, who runs, consider Sands' fungi indiscriminate killers,
posing threats to human health and to non-targeted species. Hammond
and Bigwood both say that when the fungus is finished killing one
organism, it will jump to others. Given the fact that Burns and other
legislators advocate spraying the fungi from airplanes and
helicopters, critics believe that wind and mutation will set them
loose on food crops, towns and water supplies.

They also worry about the ecology of the Colombian rainforest, one of
the most biologically diverse on the planet, and fear that the dense
variety of species already threatened by mining, drilling, logging and
farming could face a final insurmountable foe in the super fungus.

"In practice this doesn't work at all," says Dr. Ethan Russo of the
private-sector Montana Neurobehavioral Specialists, who has monitored
the idea along with Hammond and Bigwood. "Basically those of us who
have studied this feel that there is no reasonable manner in which
this could be used safely without the considerable risk that this
would spread to food crops or other items."

Russo, an outspoken critic of U.S. drug policy, also points out the
possibility of adverse health effects on humans. People who are
severely immunosuppressed because of AIDS or cancer treatments, for
example, are especially vulnerable to Fusarium infections, and a minor
eye injury, for instance, can lead to blindness if Fusarium is
involved, says Russo.

"It's not a common infection in people but certainly there is the
potential," he says. "Most viruses infect one species, but when you've
got a fungal agent that can affect not only plants but people, that
means it's pretty broad in its effects and dangers. It's the kind of
thing that should make people think."

Russo is admittedly no expert on Fusarium or fungi in general, but he
says he's spent more than six years reading everything he could get
his hands on about the subject.

Masterson and Lee have also made Fusarium research a hobby, and have
drawn the same conclusions as Russo, Hammond and Bigwood.

"A lot of scientists think this stuff is more dangerous because it's
alive. It can adapt and change and mutate," says Allen Lee. "It's a
new organism that never existed before."

These theories makes Sands bristle. Just another case of people
flaunting scientific ignorance and watching "too many Japanese horror
movies," he says.

"As far as we know," says Sands, "we've never changed the host range,"
which is to say, however conditionally, that his fungi don't attack
plants they weren't designed to attack.

"The problem will be the word 'mutant'. People think that a pathogen
can mutate and jump on a new host." Sands says that's a mathematical
impossibility. "The poor pathogen is locked into its host probably the
same way a librarian will never be a high jumper. It just isn't going
to happen."

Dr. Norman Weeden, head of MSU's Department of Plant Sciences and
Plant Pathology, backs up his colleague's science.

"Usually the relationship between a pathogen and the host plant is
fairly specific," says Weeden. "If there's chance that these pathogens
will target another plant, then they could do it anyway because they
are already out there in nature."

Sands also points out that his fungi aren't new organisms. The fungi
he works with are mutants, like a boy with blonde hair and blue eyes
is a mutant, he explains. They already exist in nature. He just breeds
them, like dogs or horses, to be stronger.

"We don't need genetic modification or GMOs or all that stuff," says
Sands. "We simply know what to select for. It's just like breeding a
Yellow Delicious apple from a normal Red Delicious. This is a whole
new technology and a whole new way to make a kinder and friendlier way
to kill weeds."


Even as President Bush eyes plans to invade Iraq with hopes of
destroying (or at least exposing) that country's alleged biological
weapons programs, U.S. legislators are hoping to rekindle the
homefront development of biological mycoherbicides to aid in the
ongoing war on drugs. Rep. John Mica (R-Florida), a senior drug policy
legislator, addressed the Committee on Government Reform last month on
his desire that the U.S. move ahead with the use of biological agents
in Colombia.

"Things that have been studied for too long need to be put into
action," said Mica, in reference to mycoherbicides. "It would do a lot
of will eradicate some of these crops for substantial
periods of time."

Burns shares Mica's views, and if the two lawmakers can convince
others that the idea is a good one, Burns will ask for money again.

"[Burns'] position is that if there's a technology that can benefit
the state, then it's absolutely right to appropriate money for it,"
says the senator's press secretary Eric Bvim.

The federal government's 1999 funding for Plan Colombia-a massive
economic aid package-required that country to allow U.S. testing of
Fusarium oxysporum in Colombia in exchange for U.S. monies. President
Clinton, citing concerns about the proliferation of biological
weapons, was eventually persuaded to waive the testing provision, but
leadership in both countries' capitols has changed since 1999,
reawakening the possibility that Washington may be more aggressive and
Bogota more receptive in promoting the use of mycoherbicide
technology. Certainly the wheels have been put in motion again.

Eight months ago, Burns met with U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Anne
Patterson and discussed the use of mycoherbicides.

"Senator Burns confronted the ambassador on the efficacy of this
herbicide to kill the drug crop," says Bvim. "He asked why they aren't
using it when it's been proven to eliminate drugs."

Patterson told Burns that the Colombians favored more
firepower--including Apache helicopters--and not the widespread
deployment of mycoherbicides, says Bvim. Burns came away from the
meeting still advocating the spraying of mycoherbicides.

Bvim also adds that Burns doesn't consider the technology dangerous.
Whether it's called biocontrol or biowarfare is a matter of semantics,
he says, and Burns is in favor of using technology he believes will

"The bottom line is that this is biological. But cocaine is cocaine
and cocaine kills people," says Bvim. "Cocaine kills communities and
it doesn't really matter how you go about eliminating the cocaine.

Certainly we're not going to go out and torch villages, but spraying
an herbicide which is no different from us spraying for bugs on our
tomato plants or rose plants holds weight in this office."

But even if Burns is able to secure money for continued research,
he'll have to find himself a new scientist, says Sands. The MSU
professor has been burned before, and doesn't want to repeat the
experience. Replacing him won't be easy, but Sands, one of the world's
only experts in the field, and certainly Montana's only expert, says
he won't have anything to do with drug crop eradication.

"It's just not worth the hassle and I've got other important things to
keep me busy," he says, referring to his current quest to rid Montana
of its noxious weeds. But even Sands admits there's not much money in
noxious weeds. The war on drugs, on the other hand, is fed by a
seemingly endless flow of government cash.

Masterson, Hammond and other critics are convinced that Sands will
have his mind changed by the almighty dollar if Burns ever secures
funding. Then again, Jeremy Bigwood isn't convinced that Sands' Ag/Bio
Con isn't being funded right now, with money from Bush's "black
budget," which remains secret for national security reasons.

But Sands is adamant that the project is dead.

Sands won't answer questions about the ethics of his former project,
or the moral logic behind spraying foreign soil with American-made
mycoherbicides. He also won't offer his opinion as to the technology's
readiness. Three years ago, he was giving presentations on behalf of
Ag/Bio Con to retired Naval officers and drug czars, explaining why
and how it would work. Now he says his new fungus--the one that
attacks knapweed--needs more time and more funding to be successful.

Sands says his drug war is in the past, and as a scientist he's
looking toward the future, wherein he hopes to be remembered as a weed
killer, not a drug warrior. And as long as he's not hiding some fungal
Frankenstein's monster behind the doors of his private lab in Bozeman,
maybe he'll have that chance. 
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