Last March, John Masterson, the director of Montana's chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, got an e-mail from an anonymous state government employee working in Florida.
"It said a senator there was pushing a program to begin testing a fungus that killed plants in the cannabis family, and that experiments were being conducted on the fungus at Montana State University," Masterson explains. "The e-mail also gave the names of the researchers."
Masterson made some phone calls to MSU after he got the e-mail and spoke to Dr. Gene Ford, an employee of the university's Plant Pathology Lab. Ford admitted that genetic engineering of a fungus designed to attack cannabis plants was taking place at MSU.
At issue is a mycoherbicide called Fusarium oxysporum, a genetically altered tomato-eating fungus able to survive the most ferocious fungicides and lie dormant in soil for decades until a host plant is found.
Called a "silver bullet" in the war on drugs by U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), mycoherbicides like Fusarium oxysporum aim to eradicate marijuana, opium poppies and coca plants by causing them to wilt and die as they are growing in fields.
Besides assaulting marijuana plants, the fungus could also target non-intoxicating industrial hemp fields, a profitable crop on the rise in many parts of the world. Another problem, many say, is the probability that these killer fungi could mutate once they are released in soils across the globe, causing the mass destruction of vital plants such as rice and wheat.
In mid-April, Masterson submitted a request to inspect all documents in MSU's possession concerning the project pursuant to Article II, Section 9 in the Montana Constitution, which stipulates that citizens have a right to know what's going on in state institutions.
The request was forwarded to MSU's legal department, which denied the query on May 24, reasoning that all documents contained proprietary information and trade secrets. Unsatisfied with the blanket refusal, Masterson, on behalf of NORML, filed a complaint in District Court on Aug. 6 seeking the documents and court costs.
"I want to make sure MSU does comply with state law," Masterson adds. "And I want to make sure the public knows what's been done there, especially the agricultural community."
However, this isn't the first time the public has heard of illicit drug-munching fungi. In March, the Independent covered the Congressional allocation of $23 million to develop mycoherbicides, an action co-sponsored by McCollum. At the same time, it was reported that U.S. officials had already announced plans to plant a soil-borne fungus in South American nations in an effort to stem the tide of drugs coming to the United States.
It's this kind of drug-warrior zeal that alarms State Rep. Joan Hurdle (D-Billings). She sponsored House Resolution 2, which Montana's Legislature passed in February by a vote of 95-4, endorsing the cultivation of industrial hemp crops by state farmers.
"It sounds a little hysterical," she says. "The war on drugs is so well-funded and based on so much hysteria and political bullshit. I'm not sure we should develop fungi to destroy plants."
Ken Maki, president of the Montana Farmer's Union, feels that the jury is still out on these kinds of genetically altered mycoherbicides, and at the very least believes that they require extensive testing.
"We just need to take it slower, or we're going to end up cutting our own throats," he says.
According to an article published on July 17 in the St. Petersburg Times, Florida's Department of Environmental Protection has already raised concerns about Fusarium oxysporum. In it, Florida DEP Secretary David Struhs said, "Without considerably more information to address the concerns noted above, I strongly recommend that Florida not proceed further with [a proposal to test Fusarium oxysporum]."
Randall Terry, a botanist with the University of Montana, adds that even with a fungal parasite genetically engineered to kill only a certain species of plants, the potential exists for the fungus to escape its targeted species through mutation.
"You can't willy-nilly release these things into the environment," he says.
Leslie Taylor, MSU's lawyer, has so far turned over about 100 documents to Masterson, and says she expects to settle, although the terms are still "up in the air."
What is now known about the testing of Fusarium oxysporum in Montana laboratories is that over the past five years, close to $900,000 has flowed into MSU for research and development. A great chunk of the funding has come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (ARS).
Sandy Miller Hayes, director of information for the ARS, says her organization's part in the project at MSU ended in 1997.
"What MSU continues to do, I don't know," she says.
Meanwhile, Annette Trinity-Stevens, MSU's research communications director, says the university's participation in the Fusarium oxysporum project ended in December 1998. She says Dr. David Sands, the head of MSU's plant pathology department, is currently working on breeding poppies for use in higher quality pharmaceuticals.
But documents turned over to Masterson by MSU show that the USDA's budget for funding the testing of Fusarium oxysporum was approved to run from 1995 until the end of this year. Calls by the Independent to Sands were not returned.
"I believe the testing is still going on, and I'm going to find out everything I can about it," Masterson says.