Earlier this year, DRCNet reported that Congress had given the US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) $23 million to research and develop fungi, or "mycoherbicides," to wipe out illicit drug crops. That plan was championed by Florida Rep. Bill McCollum, who called mycoherbicides a "silver bullet in the War on Drugs." Now Florida Governor Jeb Bush's "drug czar," Jim McDonough, wants to use a strain of the fungus Fusarium oxysporum to eradicate out the state's marijuana crop, despite warnings from Florida's Department of Environmental Protection.
The St. Petersburg Times reported last week that DEP Secretary David Struhs had written a letter to McDonough which outlined his misgivings about setting the fungus loose in Florida, noting among other things that "It is difficult, if not impossible, to control the spread of Fusarium species" and keep it from attacking other crops. But when McDonough's office asked for the DEP's support in testing the fungus on quarantined state Department of Agriculture lands, Struhs signed on. DEP spokesman Jerry Brooks told DRCNet, "We told McDonough's office that we definitely feel like this can be safely researched in quarantined facilities, and that our concerns can be addressed in the research procedure."
Asked whether the DEP would monitor the research, Brooks said no. "It was really kind of a bizarre thing for us to be involved in -- drug policy is not really part of our job," he said. "I think it was a good thing that the Governor's office recognized the need to make sure that everybody's concerns were addressed. But quite honestly, we just raised the concerns that we thought might need to addressed, and I think now, the real experts need to be the ones that are involved."
It is not entirely clear, at this point, just who those experts will be. Florida Department of Agriculture spokesman Terence McElroy told DRCNet that while that agency had agreed to give the Office of Drug Control use of its testing facilities on quarantined land in Gainesville, it had no plans to oversee the project. "We will provide the facility, and if they need some technical assistance I'm sure we'd be happy to do that," McElroy said. "But as I understand it, it's the Governor's drug policy office who's primarily interested in this, and I would think they would want to retain some control over it."
DRCNet spoke with Jeremy Bigwood, a mycologist who has studied a fusarium outbreak that has destroyed thousands of hectares of coca plants in Peru. He said that even careful laboratory study cannot guarantee how a fungus will behave in the wild. "The problem with those test patches is that oftentimes things go very well. But outside the lab, things may go very wrong," he said. "I think it's a very bad idea, in short."
Bigwood provided DRCNet with excerpts from his own research on fusarium oxysporum, including excerpts from ARS reports which suggest that toxins derived from fusarium oxysporum may be deadly to humans and other animals, not just plants [ARS #59895, May 9, 1995]. In fact, the fusarium genus also produces Fusariotoxin, or mycotoxin T-2, classified by NATO as a biological warfare agent. Bigwood's research stresses that "Fusarium's toxicity to humans and mammals depends on several factors including local environment... the concentration of the application, as well as the strain of fungus being applied." However, it also notes that "laboratory experiments have shown that fungi can produce varying amounts of chemically different toxins... and it is not unlikely that under certain conditions other novel toxins can be produced by Fusarium oxysporum."
Of course, even if this mycoherbicide could be proven safe for humans and other animals, and to work only against marijuana, there is no evidence that once it is on the loose, the fungus would recognize the limits of the state border. Moreover, an ARS spokeswoman told DRCNet in January that it was unlikely that a strain of Fusarium that killed marijuana plants would not destroy industrial hemp plants as well.
The best place to learn about Jim McDonough's plan is from the Office of Drug Control itself, but they're not talking -- to us, anyway. McDonough's spokesman, Tim Bottcher, returned DRCNet's call only to say that his office had "decided not to comment" on this story. When pressed for a reason, he told us that, "Well, we're aware that your organization favors the reformation of drug laws, and we're against that."
DRCNet will continue to monitor this story.
DRCNet's earlier coverage of mycoherbicides is online at http://www.drcnet.org/wol/076.html#fungi.
On Tuesday (7/20), the St. Petersburg Times editorialized against McDonough's plan. The editorial is online at http://www.sptimes.com/Archive/072099/Opinion.shtml. Particularly if you live in Florida, please consider writing a letter to the editor encouraging the media to continue their careful investigation of this story. Letters to the editor can be e-mailed to letters@SPTimes.com.