Pubdate: Sat, 17 Jul 1999
Source: St. Petersburg Times (FL)
Copyright: 1999 St. Petersburg Times


TALLAHASSEE -- There's a killer fungus among us, and Florida's new drug
czar Jim McDonough hopes to one day let it loose to murder the state's
illegal marijuana crops.

Only one problem: Scientists at the Florida Department of Environmental
Protection fear the fungus could mutate, spread and kill off everything
from tomatoes to endangered plants.

McDonough, who came to Florida to join Gov. Jeb Bush's administration after
working for White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey, has been holding
meetings in Tallahassee to try to get state agencies on board with the idea
of testing Fusarium oxysporum, a co-called "'mycoherbicide," in Florida.

"'It's not been used yet," McDonough said, adding that if Florida were to
test the soil-borne fungus, it would do so in a state quarantine facility
in Gainesville, where researchers isolate citrus canker and other plant
diseases. Before it could ever be released, it would need extensive review.

The Montana company that is developing the killer fungus, Ag/Bio Con., gave
state officials literature saying the fungus "does not affect animals,
humans or any other crops."

DEP scientists reached a far different conclusion: "It is difficult, if not
impossible, to control the spread of Fusarium species," DEP Secretary David
Struhs wrote in a letter to McDonough. "The inability to guarantee that the
organism will not mutate and attack other plant species is of most concern.

"Mutation of the organism would not only threaten Florida's natural
environment, but would also put at risk our economically vital agricultural

Florida's warm soils, Struhs wrote, could make the mutation worse. The
fungus can remain in the soil for as long as 40 years.

"Without considerably more information to address the concerns noted
above," Struhs wrote, "I strongly recommend that Florida not proceed
further with this proposal."

McDonough followed up with a letter to Struhs and Agriculture Commissioner
Bob Crawford: "Before we conclude that it cannot be done," McDonough wrote,
"let us take every opportunity to consider how it might be done safely."

In June, both Struhs and Crawford signed off on the idea of quarantine
testing in Gainesville, and that's as far as the proposal has gone.
McDonough said he has not pitched the idea to Gov. Jeb Bush.

McDonough has the backing of U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Longwood, who
called mycoherbicides the "silver bullet" in the war on drugs. McCollum and
U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., helped push for $23-million that Congress
appropriated this year to eradicate plants that provide the raw material
for cocaine, heroin and marijuana. The money is earmarked for research in
foreign countries, but McDonough wants to see if he can get some of the
funds for Florida.

Tim Moore, commissioner for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said
the fungus could be a valuable addition to the state's anti-drug arsenal,
as long as tests prove it is safe.

Another supporter is Betty Sembler of St. Petersburg, wife of developer Mel
Sembler, one of the Republican party's biggest fund-raisers. Mrs. Sembler
is an anti-drug activist who founded the group Drug Free America. She says
she supports the idea of using bio-control on drug crops because she thinks
it is a better than spraying pesticides like Paraquat.

Information provided by McCollum's office says, "There is no danger to the

An old Florida story

Government foresters once spread the seeds of Australian melaleuca trees
over the Everglades to help drain the swamp. Now, decades later, the state
is waging a chemical and biological war against the noxious trees. Like
arboreal shock troops, melaleuca trees have marched through the Everglades,
draining wetlands years after the state decided that the Everglades were
better off wet in the first place

Kudzu, a Chinese vine, was distributed by the government to control erosion
in the 1920s and soon became a botanical bully, growing as much as a foot
per day.

Water hyacinth, a plague in Florida lakes and rivers, was carried into the
state by a woman who lived near Palatka. She saw the pretty floating flower
at the World's Fair in New Orleans and brought it home to put in her fish
pond. It spread, and now the state spends millions of tax dollars to spray
pesticides into the water.

In fact, Florida is so concerned about the spread of exotic plants that,
last year, the Legislature more than doubled the amount of money set aside
to battle botanical invaders on state lands during the next decade.

"Our concern (with McDonough's proposal) is that we don't want to move
forward with anything that creates more problems than it solves," said
Jerry Brooks, assistant director of the DEP's division of water resources.

Florida's pot crop

On an average year, the state confiscates about 100,000 plants, Broadway said.

North Florida typically has the biggest pot crops. But statewide, urban
indoor growers have been harvesting more and more of Florida's homegrown

Last year, FDLE only confiscated about 55,000 plants, because drought and
wildfires sent growers indoors. Pinellas County was second to Miami-Dade
County in pot-growing arrests and indoor growing operations last year.
Spreading a killer fungus wouldn't put a dent in the indoor crop, which is
providing increasingly potent strains of marijuana.

Predictably, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws
said McDonough is proposing to use a sledgehammer to kill a flea.

"'It looked like they wanted to debut these (mycoherbicides) in South
America, but the governments down there didn't want any part of it. They
didn't want to be America's guinea pigs," said Paul Armentano, a spokesman
for NORML in Washington. "I'm pretty shocked to hear that someone would
suggest testing this in an American state."

But McDonough says Florida is the ideal place to test the fungus.

"Unfortunately, we have a wonderful climate and a wonderful soil for
growing marijuana," said McDonough. "I'm concerned about the supply.
Florida is off the map in its marijuana usage. It is not a benign drug. It
is a dangerous drug."

FDLE Commissioner Moore agreed: "If there's some proven, safe way to
augment our efforts to keep marijuana and its associated miseries off the
street, then I'd support it."

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