Pubdate: Tue, 27 Jul 1999
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 1999 The New York Times Company
Author: Rick Bragg


MIAMI -- For decades, the hard part for drug agents stalking Florida's
marijuana growers was finding their crop. The growers weave their plants
among corn stalks and even tomato vines to foil aerial searches. In swamps,
growers make berms out of muck and chicken wire and plant their crop,
leaving fat, black water moccasins to stand guard.

Hidden in Florida's lush landscape, the camouflaged marijuana plants often
foiled the small army of law officers, helicopters and drug-sniffing dogs.
Now, the new head of the state's Office of Drug Control hopes to kill
Florida's lucrative marijuana business in the very ground in which it
thrives, by someday dusting suspected areas with a marijuana-eating,
soil-borne fungus called Fusarium oxysporum.

It is a plan that has some politicians and Florida drug enforcement
officials excited, and some environmentalists worried.

The fungus, a bioherbicide engineered specifically to attack plants like
marijuana, is otherwise harmless, said the Montana company, Ag/Bio Con.,
that developed it.

"Is it safe, and does it work?" asked Jim McDonough, who was hired by Gov.
Jeb Bush earlier this year to head Florida's Office of Drug Control. "I've
heard some of the top scientists in the country say 'yes."'

But McDonough, who served as director of strategy for Barry McCaffrey, the
White House drug czar, said the fungus will not be used here until it is
tested in rigidly controlled conditions at a Florida test site.

"When you deal with science, you deal with the cost of advancing and what is
the cost of not advancing," said McDonough, who pointed out that 47 percent
of all marijuana seized in the United States is taken here -- much of it
home-grown. Most years, drug agents destroy more than 100,000 plants, and
one year -- in 1992 -- they destroyed more than 240,000 plants.

"With prudence and with care, make your choices," he said. "We'd be no place
if we put our head in the sand."

McDonough said he has not yet presented the plan to the governor.

But Florida has seen its environment ravaged again and again by supposedly
harmless plants that thrived so well in a damp, hot climate that they
overwhelmed indigenous plants. So some environmentalists say introducing the
fungus is risky, that it could mutate and cause disease, not only in wild
plants but in crops as well.

"I personally do not like the idea of messing with Mother Nature," said Bill
Graves, senior biologist at the University of Florida Research Center in
Homestead. "I believe that if this fungus is unleashed for this kind of
problem, its going to create its own problems. If it isn't executed
effectively, it's going to target and kill rare and endangered plants and I
feel that this can lead to a much bigger problem."

David Struhs, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental
Protection, spelled out the dangers in a letter to McDonough in April.

"Fusarium species," he wrote, "are capable of evolving rapidly. Mutagenicity
is by far the most disturbing factor in attempting to use a Fusarium species
as a bioherbicide.

"It is difficult, if not impossible," he wrote, "to control the spread of
Fusarium species."

The mutated fungi can cause disease in a large number of crops, including
tomatoes, peppers, flowers, corn and vine crops, he wrote, and are "normally
considered a threat to farmers as a pest, rather than as a pesticide.

Fusarium species are more active in warm soils and can stay resident in the
soil for years. Their longevity and enhanced activity under Florida
conditions are of concern, as this could lead to an increased risk of

What that means, say environmentalists, is that living things behave
differently in Florida than almost anywhere else in this country.

"In principle, I am very supportive of using biological agents against
narcotic plants," said Raghavan Charudattan, professor of plant pathology
and weed science at the University of Florida, but "this needs to be
researched well or it could lead to great danger."

State officials have agreed to quarantine testing of the fungus -- at a
facility outside Gainesville usually used for, among other things, studying
citrus canker -- and for now any implementation of the fungus is probably
years away.

But McDonough already has the back of some powerful allies, including U.S.
Rep. Bill McCollum, a Republican from Longwood. McDonough is planning to try
to obtain part of a $23-million congressional allocation for research in
eradicating plants like the poppy, used in heroin, and having an ally like
McCollum could be very helpful.

In Peru, angry farmers have recently accused the United States of using a
soil fungus to destroy coca in the Upper Huallaga Valley, saying that the
fungus has spread to banana, yucca, tangerine and other food crops,
according to the Miami Herald. American officials, while acknowledging in
June that they had spent $14 million on research to develop such biological
agents against poppy, coca and marijuana, denied the charges.

Here in Florida, history has taught scientists to be cautious of introducing
any foreign, living thing into the environment. While pythons as long as
pickup trucks have occasionally been found under houses in South Florida,
most of the problems have been with vegetable matter.

Kudzu, a Chinese vine that has grown rampant in the South since its
introduction in the 1920s to thwart soil erosion, has swallowed houses and
acres of roadside in Florida, growing a foot a day. Melaleuca trees, planted
decades ago to help drain the Everglades because they suck up so much water,
has infested hundreds of thousands of acres.

Jerry Brooks, assistant director of the state Department of Environmental
Protection's Division of Water Resources, said the difference between those
plants and the fungus is that the state has learned to be careful.

"Mistakes made in the past," Brooks said, "make sure proper precautions are
being taken. It's been agreed that any testing needed to be done in quarantine.

"They were not tested," he said of the infamous plants.

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