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U.S. Aims Biological Weapons at Plant

By Billie Young, Drug Policy Reform Group of Minnesota

From the June 28 edition of the London Times comes the story of a secret nerve center of the U.S. War on Drugs­­a concrete and barbed wire protected lab in the former Soviet city of Uzbekistan. Once a center for germ warfare research, the laboratory produced horticultural pathogens, including wheat rust and cereal blight-biological agents designed to destroy the food crops of Russia's enemies.

That expertise, with British and American funding, has now been turned against the poppy. Behind locked steel doors, spores of a refined and rampant,, strain of a fungus called Pleospora papaveracea are stored and cultured. Ordinary Pleospora papaveracea is not particularly deadly to plants but in the late 1980's Soviet scientists succeeded in developing a more deadly strain. Just as the scientists were making progress, the Soviet empire imploded.

In 1992 the center reopened under a new director, an expert in plant genetics, who recognized the potential of the fungus but had little money to continue development. American agencies learned of the research and decided to fund it in isolated Uzbekistan rather than move it to the United States. Secrecy, safety and political sensitivity argued for Uzbekistan. The fungus is an untested and potentially dangerous biological agent. If such a weapon originated in America, it might be seen as an act of germ warfare when deployed against countries such as Afghanistan where opium poppies are an important crop.

The Soviet Institute has now been effectively taken over by the West and the American government is funding research as well as the salaries of the scientists, with all the money being channeled through the United Nations. The fungus is presently being tested on opium poppies being grown in remote parts of eastern Uzbekistan on the border with Kyrgystan­­the biggest producer of opium for refining into heroin. Initial reports claim 100% success. Scientists and UN staff have been forbidden to talk about the project. "I can talk about other matters but not about this," the Times quotes Bogdan Lisovich, representative of the UN drug control program, as saying. "There are very big issues at stake."

Agent Orange for poppies kills quickly

The fungus that could be used against the poppies looks a little like the mold found on old bread, according to the London Times story. It develops on the poppies as a greenish and black, fuzzy powder. Once introduced to a crop, the fungus spreads through the aerial transmission of its own spores, of which millions can be produced by one plant. Once a plant is infected it begins to show symptoms within three days. By 10 days there are visible lesions on the stem and leaves. Within weeks it will die.

The bud of the opium poppy contains the sap that is the raw material for morphine and heroin. The seed-pod is slit open while on the plant, allowing the sap to ooze out. The sap is left to dry in the sun and the brown, latex-textured residue is removed with a scraper. Morphine is isolated from the opium by a series of boilings and filterings, leaving a product that resembles brown sugar. It is then compacted into blocks and transported to more sophisticated laboratories to produce heroin. It takes 12 to 14 hours to produce heroin from morphine and 50 to 100 kilos of opium to produce 5 to 10 kilos of heroin crystals.

Billie Young is the Newsletter Editor of the Drug Policy Reform Group of St. Paul, Minnesota. You can contact this group by writing: 15 Crocus Hill, St. Paul, MN 55102 or by email:

Editor's note: The opium poppy, the plant that we derive heroin from, is also the plant that morphine is produced from. Also, cocaine is medically legal in the U.S., just as heroin is in many other countries.

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