Agricultural scientists are working on a project that some government officials and members of Congress expect to be the "silver bullet" in the prolonged search for a way to eradicate narcotics plants.
As a bonus, the proponents say, the process is environmentally safe and will harm neither humans nor animals.
Acting without the administration's blessing, Congress approved as part of the overall budget package $23 million for further research into what are known as "mycoherbicides," soil-borne fungi capable of eradicating plants that provide the raw material for cocaine, heroin, and marijuana.
The Clinton administration is far from unanimous about the innovation. Skeptics say more testing must be done and that winning the support of governments of drug-producing South American countries (Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia) will not be easy. None has been briefed extensively, and none has taken a public position on the question.
The administration will get to sound out Colombian President Andres Pastrana next week during a state visit to Washington. The three South American countries are the only ones worldwide that produce the base plant for cocaine.
The anti-drug fungi legislation was guided through the Congress chiefly by Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla. In addition to mycoherbicide research, the legislation promotes alternative crops to wean farmers off narcotics plants.
"These micro-organisms have the potential to cripple drug crops before they are even harvested," DeWine said.
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," he said. "This could be the silver bullet."
House Foreign Relations Committee chairman Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y., said the technology is "extremely effective, not costly, doesn't affect the environment and is a good way of eradicating coca."
The U.S. government has spent billions of dollars over the years without much success in trying to slay the drug dragon. The "Just Say No" campaign of the 1980s has been followed by a government-sponsored media ad blitz warning people of drugs' dangers. Chemical sprays and interdiction efforts have been used to cut supply.
Still, experts estimate the United States has 6.7 million drug addicts.
Officials believe South American countries can be persuaded to go along with the program only if farmers have plausible alternatives to narcotics growing. Chocolate, derived from cacao trees, is being touted as a promising alternative, because it would be suitable for South American small farmers, and the global chocolate market is expected to be tight in coming years.
Experiments being carried out by Agriculture Department scientists focus on isolating the mycoherbicides that narcotics plants produce naturally. If, for example a coca plant is doused with the fungi, it wilts. Decades must pass before the area is again suitable for growing coca.
In addition, beans, corn or other crops grown nearby are unaffected. The same technologies can be applied to eradicate plants used for marijuana and heroin.
Advocates and skeptics agree that the program will go nowhere without the support of the drug-producing countries.
Unless political groundwork is properly laid, farmers' unions or environmental groups in the three countries could come out in opposition, nullifying the possibility of national cooperation. American officials expect biological warfare charges to fly.
Written by George Gedda