Support for Marijuana Research at MSU Dries Up

Support for Marijuana Research at MSU Dries Up
Posted by FoM on October 25, 1999 at 09:31:56 PT
By Gail Schontzler
Source: Montana NORML
Marijuana grows like knapweed in the Chu River Valley of Kazakhstan. This valley, along what was once the Great Silk Road trade route from Europe to China, is infested with Central Asia's largest stand of wild Cannabis sativa. 
It covers an estimated 120,000 hectares -- some 463 square miles -- and can produce 500 metric tons of marijuana a year. This is one of the places where scientists from Montana State University quietly hunted for diseased plants during a decade of classified research that aimed to discover natural herbicides to kill narcotic plants, new weapons for the war on drugs. MSU plant sciences professor David C. Sands and his colleagues worked in secret, beginning around 1988, seeking ways to use the fungi that naturally attack the plants that produce marijuana, opium and cocaine. The research remained secret until this month, when MSU released a 4-inch thick pile of documents, a disclosure prompted by an open-records lawsuit brought by the Montana chapter of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.The documents and interviews reveal details about the research and suggest that, although supporters of marijuana legalization worry that a killer fungus may devastate marijuana and environmentalists are concerned the fungus might harm other crops, the biggest backer of the marijuana research, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, isn't convinced it will work. The USDA has ended its funding of Sands' marijuana project, said Sandy Miller Hays, information director for the Agricultural Research Service."After a few years, we decided we weren't satisfied with the results," Hays said. "It just wasn't good enough." Like Montana's losing war on knapweed, the war on narcotic plants is often stymied by the wild plants' ability to bounce back from whatever man or nature throws at them. However, the USDA is still researching use of a related fungus to combat cocaine. Hays said, "That's probably the star of our biocontrol program."Sands' research was supported over 10 years by $2.9 million from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and Agricultural Research Service of the USDA, according to MSU. And for a decade, the research was supported by MSU.But in the 1990s, the Clinton administration began declassifying 600 million pages of federal documents, which meant MSU's narcotic plant research was no longer cloaked in secrecy. In 1998, MSU President Mike Malone and the former vice president for research decided to just say no to more narcotic plant research. Malone wrote a letter Sept. 2, 1998, to Rep. Rick Hill, R-Mont., explaining the federal government had been talking about expanding the research and possible production of biocontrol agents. "After much consideration, we have concluded that a university campus with thousands of students is not an appropriate place for such research," Malone wrote. He suggested MSU scientists might continue working with the federal government at a military base or someplace with more protection. "I think, without being paranoid, there are general risks," Malone said last week. "It's fascinating research and it could have a major application, but we need to look at our role and scope," and work on projects closer to Montana's needs. Neither Malone nor Tom McCoy, MSU's vice president for research, could cite any specific threat to MSU or other universities doing similar research, but they remain concerned. Just because nothing has happened, McCoy said, doesn't mean it won't. "There are drug lords in Colombia who, if they thought this stuff would work, could see us as a legitimate target for retribution," McCoy said. If Sands is disappointed, he's not saying. Sands, 58, likes tennis, teaching, travel, art, music and poetry, according to an MSU Web page, but he doesn't like talking to the press. He has declined requests for interviews from the Chronicle and New Scientist magazine. Annette Trinity-Stevens, MSU research office writer, said he's frustrated over inaccurate reporting in the press and concerned about his well-being.Though MSU no longer wants any part in the narcotic plant research, it says that Sands is free to continue on his own off-campus as a private consultant, apart from his $60,629-a-year job as a professor. And he apparently hopes to do so, as president of Ag/Bio Con Inc., a company based at the family's Bozeman home, whose officers are all Sands family members.Last spring, Florida's new drug chief, Jim McDonough, invited the professor to make a presentation to state officials about testing the fungal herbicide he has been developing to combat marijuana. McDonough had heard about the fungus research while working for White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey, according to Tim Bottcher, spokesman for the Florida office of drug control.Ag/Bio Con gave Florida officials literature saying that the fungus, Fusarium oxysporum, a soil-borne fungus that causes wilt in marijuana, "does not affect animals, humans or any other crops."Ag/Bio Con literature dated March 25, 1999, and posted on the Internet by NORML showed the company proposing a $10 million project extending more than three years, and argued wiping out the source of narcotics was the drug war's best strategy. It also cited a natural outbreak of wilt that hit Peru's illegal crops in 1984. Supporters of the research argue a natural herbicide would be more environmentally friendly than spraying chemicals year after year. The fungus targets one specific plant, does not harm other plants, stays in the soil for years and can spread naturally. Yet the Florida Department of Environmental Protection reacted with concern. "It is difficult, if not impossible, to control the spread of Fusarium species," wrote state environmental director David Struhs. "The inability to guarantee that the organism will not mutate and attack other plant species is of most concern."Scientists expressed concerns Fusarium could harm the state's citrus or other agricultural crops, or turn out to be the next kudzu vine, melaleuca tree or water hyacinth -- plants imported to Florida for benign reasons that thrived in Florida's warm climate and spread aggressively, choking out native plants and waters. Botanical bullies, the St. Petersburg Times called them. The Florida Fusarium controversy even captured the attention of the New York Times.When the office of drug control made it clear that it wanted to test the fungus at a quarantined University of Florida facility near Gainesville -- not spray it over the countryside -- the state environmental and agricultural directors gave their approval. Testing might take five to 10 years, said Bryan Baker, coordinator for pesticide issues with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The office of drug control still hasn't decided whether to recommend to Gov. Jeb Bush that the fungus be formally tested, Bottcher said. One outside scientist has told them the chances of the fungus mutating are as remote as the chances of "a 747 crashing in the Super Bowl stadium on Super Bowl Sunday." "Some people would have us not even test it," Bottcher said. "We'd be derelict if we just ignored it."Some Florida newspaper columnists and marijuana activists have labeled the fungus "genetically engineered," which MSU insists is incorrect. In the big stack of documents MSU released, there is discussion in one doctoral student's dissertation of seeking mutant variations of the fungus that might be more potent. MSU plant sciences professor Don Mathre, who's familiar with the dissertation, said such mutations can be speeded up in the lab chemically or with ultraviolet light.But there is no discussion in the documents of genetic engineering -- splicing in genetic material from another species.There are many different forms of Fusarium oxysporum, and each targets a particular host plant. One form attacked the Gallatin Valley's pea crop after World War I and that, along with the popularity of frozen peas, wiped out Bozeman's canned pea industry, Mathre said. It is the reason local gardeners shouldn't grow their sweet peas in the same spot year after year, he said.A 1984 Berkeley study found the Fusarium that keys in on marijuana would wipe out 50 percent of Cannabis plants, but did not affect dozens of other crops tested, from tomatoes to potatoes, barley and wheat. "It's a possibility" that the form of Fusarium that attacks marijuana could mutate and attack beneficial crops, but "it's probably remote," said MSU professor Gary Strobel, an expert on fungi. "These Fusarium are probably found in every gram of soil on the planet."As far as testing Fusarium in Florida, Strobel said, "I don't see it's that great an environmental threat, given that it's so prevalent on the planet." His concern is that it may not work, because of the resiliency shown by genetically diverse populations of wild weeds. If you try to mow down all the dandelions in your lawn, he pointed out, you end up selecting for dandelions that can flower below the level of your mower. Though Strobel may have doubts about Fusarium's effectiveness, he said, "It's worth a try. ... Enough families are broken as a result of drug use."Congress agrees it's worth a try. Last year it appropriated $23 million for research into using fungi as herbicides against the plants that produce cocaine, marijuana and heroin. Congress is hoping nations like Peru, Bolivia and Colombia will allow the "mycoherbicides" to be used in their countries.Such proposals outrage the Montana NORML chapter. Director John Masterson of Missoula, whose regular job is with an Internet company, called it "scary."Masterson said he's concerned MSU's mycoherbicides could threaten Canada's legal hemp crops just across the border. He added he plans to send the information NORML has uncovered to Montana farm groups that supported the 1999 Montana House resolution urging federal legalization of industrial hemp as an alternative crop."It's inappropriate and potentially dangerous," Masterson said of MSU's research, "spawned by the hysteria of the war on drugs. ... The sentiment that created this study is the demonization of marijuana. Most drug use is casual marijuana use."10/24/1999 12:00:00 AM.Related Articles & Web Site:Montana NORMLnorml montana.com MSU Confirms Research On Anti-Marijuana Fungus - 10/17/99 Sues MSU Over Anti-Marijuana Fungus - 10/14/99 NORML Files Suit On Killer Fungus Research - 8/13/99 
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Comment #1 posted by PoTdefender on June 20, 2002 at 16:02:52 PT:
U.S. trying to kill our crops
The U.S. has just release their plan to find a fungus that could kill all of us responsible pot smoker's crops.We must do something fast before the most useful plant is gone forever.What i can't understand is why does our goverment hate it so much, no one dies from it.Cigarettes kill over 300,000 a year and weed kils none.They let harmful things become legal and nonharmful things they ban.Our country has gone retarded.They should make it legal and they can put restrictions on it if they want, as long as i can smoke intil i die.We must do something soon before it is to late.
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