Environmental News Network
Last year, state and federal law enforcement agents hand-plucked 55,311 marijuana plants from Florida soil.
And that's just the beginning, says Jim McDonough, the state's law-enforcement czar in the war on drugs.
In July, McDonough announced he wanted to release a pot-eating fungus to finish off the state's domestic crop of marijuana.
"If science says this is a safe way to effectively eradicate drug crops, then that's a good discovery," he says. "It's science."
But scientists who regularly work in agriculture have serious reservations.
"It's a manifestly bad idea to go ahead with large-scale use of untested pesticides," say Margaret Mellon, director of agriculture and biological technology at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C.
She says law enforcement's attempt to eradicate cannabis sometimes borders on reefer madness.
The fungus, Fusarium oxysporum, developed by a Montana biotechnology firm to target cannabis, infects the plant with a deadly root-eating canker, literally choking the life out of it.
"The drug folks have been out there battling cannabis with a number of pesticides for years," says Mellon. "This is just case number 100."
"It seems to me, at the very least, there are a lot of questions you'd want to answer before you release something like this into the environment."
Tim Schubert, a biologist with the Florida Department of Agriculture, agrees. He's worried the fungus will mutate once it's released into the wild.
Cannabis belongs to the Moraceae family, kin to varieties of mulberry and fig trees already established in Florida, says Schubert. He warns that the killer-fungus could mutate and turn on other members of the family. Worse still, the fungus could spin out of control, damaging large portions of the state's agricultural industry.
The thought of an agricultural disaster makes vegetable growers less than enthusiastic about the idea, says Schubert. "They know what other types of Fusarium do to their tomatoes and peppers already."
But not everyone is condemning McDonough's enthusiasm for biotechnology in the state's war on drugs.
James Kimbrough, an expert on fungi at the University of Florida's plant pathology department, says the biotech proposal is based on perfectly sound science. But the delivery system needs work.
"Even if this Fusarium is a hot match for the marijuana plant, you still have the problem of application."
Fusarium oxysporum thrives in open, cultivated fields, says Kimbrough. And the fungus often requires years of application before it can infiltrate the soil and work its magic on the roots.
"To the best of my knowledge, marijuana isn't grown in fields in Florida. It's grown all over the place in patches. It's hidden."
If science is all about learning from the past, say scientists, then McDonough might do well to revisit Florida's recent disastrous history of importing non-native plants and animals.
"Florida already has a good deal of experience with the introduction of new species," says Jerry Brooks of Florida's Department of Environmental Protection.
The state currently battles the invasion of non-native plants like the kudzu vine, melaleuca tree and water hyacinth - a war, state officials admit, they may be losing.
In spite of the objections from science, the DEP and the Department of Agriculture are giving McDonough the green light to conduct quarantined tests in a state research facility in Gainesville.
Even this may prove to be a meaningless application of science, says the Department of Agriculture's Schubert, still concerned about a Fusarium breakout.
The state has limited quarantine facilities, and applicants are accepted based on their potential to improve the quality of life in Florida.
"This one probably wouldn't even rate right now," he says Schubert.
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Last Updated on 12/30/99
By Karen Lutz