Magic mushrooms enlisted in war on dope

THE BIGGEST environmental hot potato in Britain is genetically modified crops. But American politicians have fewer qualms. Drug enforcement agents in Florida think they have the perfect solution for eradicating marijuana crops in the state: dusting vast areas with a genetically engineered fungus which would kill the illicit plants but leave everything else unharmed.

With its "Day of the Triffids" connotations, the project is highly controversial. But to the Florida Office of Drug Control it may offer the best hope for thwarting growers who nurture marijuana in plots that are often camouflaged to avoid aerial detection. Plants are interspersed among other crops or even grown on rafts in swamps. About 100,000 plants are seized in Florida annually.

The plan's biggest champion is Jim McDonough, recently hired by Governor Jeb Bush to combat the Florida drugs industry. He has won permission to begin testing the fungus on a quarantined site outside Gainesville. Deployment of the fungus has also attracted crucial political support from a high- profile Florida congressman, Bill McCollum, who has called it the "silver bullet" in the war against marijuana cultivation.

Among those sounding the alarm about the potential risks, however, is the head of the state's environmental protection agency, David Struhs. In a recent letter to Mr McDonough he warned that the fungus could spread and mutate todamage other plant life.

"Mutation of the organism would not only threaten Florida's natural environment, but would also put at risk our economically vital agricultural industry," he wrote. "I strongly recommend that Florida not proceed further with this proposal."

Florida has a history of organic cures that are worse than the disease. Huge sums are being spent on attacking the melaleuca tree, introduced from Australia in the twenties to drain the Everglades. Now the tree is everywhere and the state is trying to replenish waters in the Everglades.

"The idea is shockingly dangerous," said The St Petersburg Times recently, pointing out that much of the illegal marijuana crop is grown indoors.

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