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EPA Testing Fungus That Kills Drugs

Science: Organisms are believed to eradicate narcotics plants without harming surrounding crops. Research could aid trafficking war.

October 23, 1998| From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Government researchers are testing a fungus they believe will kill narcotics plants without harming other crops or animal life, a potential breakthrough aimed at cutting foreign production of illegal drugs headed for the United States.

Congress has approved $23 million for further research into what are known as "mycoherbicides," soil-borne fungi capable of eradicating plants that provide the raw material for drugs.

If, for example, a coca plant is doused with the fungi, it wilts, and decades must pass before the area is again suitable for growing coca. Beans, corn or other crops grown nearby are unaffected. Environmental Protection Agency scientists believe that no harm would come to humans or animals and that the same technologies can be applied to eradicate plants used for marijuana and heroin.

The Clinton administration is far from unanimous about the innovation. Skeptics say that more testing must be done to prove effectiveness and safety and that winning the support of governments of drug-producing South American countries--Colombia, Peru and Bolivia--won't be easy. None has been briefed extensively, and none has taken a public position.

The three South American countries are the only ones that produce the plant for cocaine.

The legislation was guided through Congress by Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) and Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.). In addition to mycoherbicide research, the legislation provides for promotion of alternative crops for South American farmers.

McCollum said the new crop eradication technology is much safer than traditional strategies. "All of the indications are that this has the potential for making a big difference in the drug war. This could be the silver bullet."

The United States has spent billions of dollars over the years with little success in trying to slay the drug dragon. The "just say no" campaign of the 1980s has been followed by a government-sponsored ad blitz warning people of the dangers of drugs. Chemical sprays and interdiction efforts have been used to cut supply. Still, an estimated 6.7 million addicts live in the United States, and experts estimate that 13 million Americans have used drugs in the last month.

U.S. officials believe South American countries can be persuaded to go along with the program only if farmers have plausible alternatives to narcotics plants. As one promising alternative, officials are touting chocolate, derived from cacao trees, because it is a suitable alternative for South American small farmers, and the global market in the coming years is expected to be tight.

Advocates and skeptics agree that the program will go nowhere without the support of the drug-producing countries.

Unless the political groundwork is properly laid, farmers' unions or environmental groups in the coca-growing countries could come out in opposition, nullifying the possibility of cooperation, officials say.

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