Is it a silver bullet in the war on drugs or an outlawed biological weapon?
Frustrated by the nonstop flow of cocaine and heroin into the United States, some American lawmakers are promoting mycoherbicides, weed killers made from toxic, mold-like fungi that they believe could be used to eliminate illegal drug crops for good.
For years, mycoherbicides had been largely written off by many U.S. officials. They were concerned the fungi could mutate to kill legitimate crops and that their use overseas would violate the United Nations' 31-year-old Biological Weapons Convention and other treaties.
"The DEA doesn't want to touch this with a 10-foot pole," said Eric Rosenquist, a leading expert on mycoherbicides at the Agriculture Department's Research Service.
Still, a handful of determined Congress members have kept the issue alive. Last month, they inserted into a bill authorizing funding for the White House drug czar's office language that requires government scientists to carry out a new round of studies into mycoherbicides. President Bush later signed the bill into law.
"I'm telling you, the war on drugs ain't working," said Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., in a telephone interview from Washington. "And if it ain't working, you don't sit around doing the same thing over and over again.
"We have to use whatever tools that we think will work and that are safe," he said, "and mycoherbicides fit that bill."
Burton, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., now the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and other mycoherbide supporters are dismayed over a surge in Afghanistan in the production of opium poppies, which are used to make heroin, and bumper crops of South American coca, the key ingredient in cocaine. Afghanistan provides about 90 percent of the world's opiates, while Colombia is the source of 80 to 90 percent of the global cocaine supply.
U.S.-sponsored programs to chop down poppy and coca fields or fumigate them with chemical herbicides have made little dent because drug farmers have moved elsewhere to plant more. Much of the U.S.-bound cocaine comes across the Texas-Mexico border, and is often routed through Houston, a city U.S. law enforcement officials describe as a leading cocaine distribution center for the rest of the United States.
Since the 1970s, when a fungus called Fusarium oxysporum was found to kill coca plants in Hawaii , scientists for the CIA and the U.S. departments of Energy and Agriculture have carried out research -- often in secret -- to develop fungal herbicides to combat drug plantations.
Called mycoherbicides, they work by producing toxic compounds that dissolve the cell walls of targeted plants. Unlike traditional herbicides, mycoherbicides can reproduce themselves and linger in the soil for many years to destroy replanted crops. Some view them as an environmentally friendly alternative to chemical herbicides, a sort of "Agent Green."
"If proven to be successful, mycoherbicides could revolutionize our drug eradication efforts," Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., the former chairman of the House drug policy subcommittee, told reporters in Washington.
But mycoherbicides are so controversial that U.S. government scientists have not tested them outside of carefully controlled greenhouses and have not found a nation willing to spray them on drug crops.
Fusarium oxysporum, for example, comes from a family that includes hundreds of fungi that can attack everything from corn to watermellons. One strain of Fusarium wilt is responsible for the current epidemic killing Los Angeles' iconic palm trees.
In 1999, Florida's secretary of environmental protection rejected a proposal to use Fusarium oxysporum to attack the state's marijuana crop due to fears that the mycoherbicide could mutate and destroy legitimate crops like tomatoes, peppers, and flowers.
"Ask any U.S. farmer what he thinks about using mycoherbicides and spreading them around, and his eyes will bulge out of his head," said Sanho Tree, a drug policy expert at Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.
Searching for a test site, the U.S. Congress in 2000 conditioned the delivery of a $1.3 billion package of mostly antidrug aid for Colombia to the Bogota government's commitment to test mycoherbicides on coca and opium crops.
But Colombia refused. As opposition to the plant killer dubbed the "Franken-fungus" intensified here, the Clinton administration waived the mycoherbicide provision due to concerns that it would be accused of promoting biological warfare. Meanwhile, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador all banned drug eradication through chemical or biological means.
In 2002, the United Nations abandoned a U.S.-financed study of mycoherbicides in Uzbekistan amid resistance to using a biological agent to combat that country's opium poppy crop. Since then, no further research on mycoherbicides by U.N. agencies or the U.S. government has gone forward, according to Thomas Schweich, the No. 2 official at the State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
"We determined that there was absolutely no place that we could field test mycoherbicides because of the resistence," Schweich told a congressional hearing in March.
The DEA refused to comment on mycoherbicides. But U.S. Drug Czar John Walters voiced skepticism when questioned by Burton at a congressional hearing about using Fusarium oxysporum on Colombia's coca fields.
"If you were to (use) it and it is not specific to coca, it could cause considerable damage to the environment, which in Colombia is very delicate," Walters said.
Even so, the language in last month's congressional bill requires Walters' office to work with government scientists in studying the feasibility of using Fusarium oxysporum and other mycoherbicides on drug plants. It's unclear how much the tests will cost, but they will likely take several years to complete.
"Our judgement at the moment is that the case for mycoherbicides is not proven," said David Murray, a scientist and one of Walters's deputies. "If there is a change in the evidence, we might revisit the issue."
Dr. Rosenquist, the USDA expert, doubts that will happen. When he tested Fusarium oxysporum in the 1990s, he had to inundate coca plants with the mycoherbicide, using more than 20 pounds of active ingredient per acre -- and even then only 30 to 40 percent of the bushes died.
"Why would you want to use something that doesn't work very well?" he said.
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.