Pubdate: Tues, 08/04 1999
Source: Tampa Tribune (FL)
Copyright: 1999, The Tribune Co.
Note: The item posted at URL: was mistitled. This is a
Tampa Tribune editorial.


The head of Florida's Office of Drug Control proposes an innovative way to
sabotage marijuana growers.

Jim McDonough hopes to unleash a marijuana-killing fungus that would wipe
out the illegal crop.  Pot growers often hide the plant among corn or other
legal crops or plant the marijuana far back in remote swamps.  Searches for
marijuana fields are costly, time-consuming and often futile.

The fungus, McDonough told New York Times writer Rick Bragg, could be
applied to the soil in suspected areas and would cause disease in any
marijuana that was grown there.  The growers would find themselves somewhat
like citrus growers whose groves are afflicted with canker - only they could
not call state agricultural officials for help.

It's a nifty, economical plan, and it is easy to see why it would be
embraced by McDonough, who worked for White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey
before being appointed to the state job by Gov.  Jeb Bush.  Nearly half the
marijuana confiscated in the nation is captured in Florida.

Despite this, McDonough's plan represents a grave threat to the state's
environment and agriculture industry and should be treated with extreme

Florida, more than most states, has suffered great harm from exotic species
that we're promoted as some natural miracle worker.  Once introduced into
the state's warm, semitropical climate, many of these aliens spread wildly,
causing unforeseen havoc.

The water-gulping melaleuca tree, for instance, was imported from Australia
to dry up marshlands.  It now marches across the South Florida landscape
like an invading army.  It has claimed some 500,000 acres from north of Lake
Okeechobee south to Florida Bay, including huge stretches of the Everglades.
The tree grows in thick stands virtually barren of native wildlife.

Likewise, the Brazilian pepper was introduced as an evergreen shrub.
Raccoons, opossums and birds distributed its seeds, and it now infests
800,000 acres from north of Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades.  It creates
dense forests that displace native plants and animals.

Australian pine trees were planted to form windbreaks on islands and around
fields, roads and canals.  The trees have overrun barrier islands along both
the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, threatening endangered sea turtle and American
crocodile nesting habitats.

Dozens of other exotic plants and animals, including kudzu, walking catfish,
hydrilla and water hyacinths, have proved to be costly headaches for the
people of Florida.

It is particularly worrisome that the biologically engineered fungus could
end up attacking plants other than marijuana.

State Department of Environmental Protection chief David Struhs warned
McDonough in a recent letter that the sort of fungus that would be used to
attack the marijuana "is capable of evolving rapidly.  ...  It is difficult,
if not impossible, to control the spread of Fusarium species."

Struhs said a mutated fungus could cause disease in other crops, including
tomatoes, corn, flowers and vines.

Officials with the Montana company that is producing the fungus stressed it
will be engineered to specifically attack plants like marijuana and will be
harmless to other vegetation.  But Florida has heard such claims before.
This sort of fungus is active in warm soils, where it can remain for years.
Florida, as Struhs says, would provide the idea conditions for it to mutate.

So, given Florida's painful history with introduced species, relying on
foreign agents to combat marijuana doesn't look to be the smartest idea. The
state should be exceedingly cautious.  McDonough would be wise to find ways
to fight drugs that will not require Florida to gamble its natural resources
or its agricultural industry.

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