The Temptation of Dr. Weed 

Through the window of his Montana State University-Bozeman lab, Dr. David Sands can barely be glimpsed. Almost totally obscured by piles of data and stacks of fungus-filled Petri dishes, patches of the 60-something scientist’s cornflower blue Oxford show through.

There’s a knock at lab door and a call. “Hello? Dr. Sands?”

“Yeah, I’m here,” he responds from his hiding spot, poking out his bald, bespectacled head. Even expecting invited guests, his voice is apprehensive and unwelcoming. He doesn’t get up but stays seated, gently adjusting a microscope, and waits for the reporter to approach.

This is not the first time reporters have called on Sands. Between 1999 and 2000, he was hounded by media from all over the world—the BBC, Mother Jones, the London Observer and Newsweek all wanted access to the man and his groundbreaking research. Sands was one of the world’s few experts on mycoherbicides—fungi that kill other living plants. Sands’ specialty was a fungus meant to replace toxic chemicals as the weapon of choice in a drug war battle plan designed to decimate crops of coca and cannabis in the jungles of Colombia.

The press wasn’t kind to Sands, or to his work. Mother Jones portrayed him as a reckless scientist unconcerned about the potential health risks posed by mycoherbicides to the Colombian people. Later that year the London Observer reported links between Sands’ private Bozeman company, Ag/Bio Con, high-ranking U.S. military personnel, and Florida drug czar Jim McDonough. As recently as last month, an article in Counterpunch, which dubbed Sands’ coca-killing fungus “agent green,” drew a parallel between Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele’s merciless human experiments and a U.S. government proposal to spray Sands’ fungal agent over Colombia.

After being vilified by the media, Sands refused to talk about his work for years–ignoring the inquiries of the international press, as well as calls from the Independent and the Bozeman Chronicle. He initially refused to be interviewed for this story, relenting only after repeated phone calls and an agreement that he not have to answer questions about the drug-related applications of his work.

The persistent scientific myth holds that practitioners fit either into the Einstein or Frankenstein categories, benevolent or mad. After being firmly consigned to the Frankenstein category, Sands seems anxious to present himself as the Einsteinian humanitarian. Based on the research Sands has pioneered since media and public criticism convinced MSU administrators to pull the plug on his drug-related experiments—mycoherbicides designed for weed control, land mine detection with mutated mustard flowers, and the development of natural, super-nutritious grains—the truth is probably that the good doctor is neither mad scientist or gentle genius, rather something in between.

But with members of Congress pushing to reactivate research on mycoherbicides, Sands may become a public figure again. Alarms have already been raised by activists who hate the idea of American imperialists running the show in Colombia, and by environmentalists who fear that the Bush administration will dump Sands’ mycoherbicides on a swath of South American rainforest the size of California without full awareness of the potential dangers.

Sands hears the new knock at the door, and he’s already bracing himself for the inevitable question: Will he forsake his MSU-sponsored weed control, land mine detection and grain projects—none of which bring in the big funding dollars—and use his private, home-based company, Ag/Bio Con, to pick up where he left off a few years back, once again hawking his fungus as a weapon in the war on drugs?

Flashback to 1999

It’s the final year of the century. Santana’s “Smooth” is rocking the airwaves, American Beauty is challenging cultural taboos, and Sands and his cohorts at Montana State University-Bozeman are breeding a super fungus to attack cannabis and coca plants.

The idea of using a fungal herbicide to kill drug plants has its roots in the 1970s, when a natural outbreak began killing off coca in Hawaii. By 1986, the scientific community had realized that a biological agent that killed drug crops could prove to be a major cash crop in its own right. In 1989, Sands began research on the cannabis-wilting fungus Fusarium oxysporum.

For a decade the research went on at MSU-Bozeman without the general public’s knowledge. Then on March 29, 1999, Montana NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) Director John Masterson received a clandestine e-mail. An unidentified deep throat, claiming to work for the state government of Florida, advised Masterson he should speak with the scientists at the MSU-plant pathology department.

“They said the Florida drug czar was looking at a plan to basically fumigate the Everglades with this Fusarium oxysporum fungus,” says Masterson. “What this person had heard was that MSU was developing this Fusarium oxysporum.”

Masterson took the simplest route possible. He called MSU and asked if the allegation was true, eventually speaking to Sand’s MSU colleague Dr. Gene Ford, who confirmed that university scientists were developing mycoherbicides to attack drug-producing plants.

“He even mentioned that the fungus had been tested in a greenhouse with cooperation with the Missoula police department,” says Masterson. So Masterson wrote to Missoula police, who told him they’d loaned some lights to MSU’s plant pathology department, but had no idea what the equipment was being used for. Other than that, the cops said they knew nothing about the alleged research.

Reaching a dead end in Missoula, Masterson went back to MSU, but found that officials there weren’t as willing to answer a second round of questions. The university’s legal department had stepped in.

Looking for leverage, Masterson contacted attorney Allan Lee, who confirmed that MSU, as a public institution, had no right to keep secrets from the public. If Masterson wanted answers, Lee would get them. But Lee’s first letters requesting access to the research didn’t elicit the response he was looking for.

“They said all the information was top secret,” says Lee. “They told me they had trade secrets with other parties and the contracts stipulated secrecy. But they’re a state-funded agency. They can’t have secret contracts.”

Eventually Lee filed a lawsuit to gain access to the information and MSU bowed to the pressure and began releasing documents.

“They said that this was all their research,” says Masterson, holding up a stack of papers a quarter-inch thick. “They asked us to settle and we said we weren’t going to settle, then they came up with another stack of documents.”

The second stack of documents was about three inches thicker than the first. It not only confirmed the nature of the research, but revealed that MSU’s “secret” contract was with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was funding the program to the tune of $3 million over 10 years.

As Masterson began tipping the media and posting the MSU documents on his Web site, the university found itself popping up in the press next to the phrases “marijuana research,” “drug lords” and “killer fungi.” The articles didn’t neglect to mention Sands and the allegedly secret work his private company was allegedly engaged in, beyond what might be going on in MSU’s labs.

Then-MSU President Mike Malone, citing safety concerns, finally wrote to the government telling them the university was backing out.

“After much consideration, we have concluded that a university campus with thousands of students is not an appropriate place for such research,” he wrote.

The university’s blessing was gone, as was Sands’ funding, and the fervor. It seemed that Sands’ research with killer fungi was done.

Will the real Dr. Sands please stand up
Three years later, Sands is still a professor of plant bacteriology and still doing research. In his MSU lab, a large orange biohazard sticker adorns the refrigerator. You’ve seen these stickers dozens of times—in magazine photos, at the movies, on the yellow suits of men doing dangerous toxic clean-up work. But all Sands has in his fridge is mold and tomato juice.

“All it means is that you have something living in your fridge,” he says, popping the top on a can of spicy V8 with lightly age-spotted hands.

The icebox could be filled with mycoherbicides or smallpox or the fuzzy green leftovers you forgot to clean out before leaving for Christmas vacation. But whether it’s a biological weapon or a common fungus, in a university lab the sticker has to be on the door.

Sands’ fridge still harbors mutant fungi, but not the kind that kills dope.

“As far as I know, that’s no application that we have any interest in,” he says of his old research. “The University doesn’t want us to work in that area, and that’s such a small area compared to the 200 weeds we need to control in the United States.”

Whether he’s continuing his old work at his private home lab is up for debate. He says he isn’t, but biological warfare and mycoherbicide watchdog groups like the Sunshine Project and mycoherbicide.net suspect that Sands is still doing work for the U.S. government on eradicating drug crops. The Sunshine Project’s Edward Hammond, lacking a smoking gun, points to Sands’ $1,250 contribution to Sen. Conrad Burns’ 2000 re-election campaign.

Hammond and Masterson both think it’s no coincidence that the year before Ag/Bio Con’s contribution, Burns urged congress for more money to research mycoherbicides. Both also believe that when Burns and other lawmakers reactivate the research, as they believe will happen, Sands, as the nation’s foremost expert, will be the government’s logical go-to guy.

But Sands says that’s all in his past, emphatically claiming that he is not now and will never again involve himself in drug-eradication research, no matter how much research money the feds might throw at him. Sands also mentions, by the way, that he doesn’t want to put himself in harm’s way.

“It’s easy for someone to get on a plane with a gun,” he says referring to the prospect of vengeful drug cartels.

He says his goal is to help the world as a scientist and humanitarian, and not to be another meaningless casualty of the drug war.

Referencing new research and the 12-hour days he puts in at MSU, he presents a reasonable argument that he has neither the time, the desire, nor the funds to work on his old projects.

The main thrust of Sands’ current research is aimed at the eradication of noxious weeds, like knapweed. Garden-variety weeds may not be as interesting as the war on drugs, but they do pose a serious threat in Montana. The state spends in excess of $14 million a year to kill and contain non-native weeds. That figure is expected to increase as non-native species continue to encroach.

With the equally unpronounceable Noxious Weed Trust Fund Advisory Council and Noxious Weed Seed Free Forage Advisory Council meeting this month to discuss the difficulties of weed management, new ideas will be welcome. Sands hopes the respective councils remember him during their discussions, and bump up the couple of grand they toss his way each year for research. He also hopes that talks steer away from chemical controls.

“The principle of biological control is to take an insect or disease and use it instead of Roundup [a popular chemical weed killer manufactured by Monsanto],” says Sands. “Those of us in biocontrol have been promising for years and years that we’d be successful and that we’d be nature’s friendly way of doing in knapweed, leafy spurge, water hyacinth and so on. There have been very few successes.”

So far, the use of chemicals has proven far more effective in controlling unwanted plant life, but chemicals come with nasty consequences, including poisoned water supplies and lowered animal birth rates, most commonly associated with the chemical pesticide DDT. Sands says that his technology, which is similar to what he was working on in the ’90s, is devoid of that sort of consequence.

“If we’re smart, we’re going to be both chemists and ecologists,” he says. “We’re going realize that we will never eliminate knapweed or even suppress it unless we find a way to make the pathogens better.”

Sands says he’s found that way: mutating pathogens that already exist in the natural world to be stronger and more effective. But the very idea of stronger and more effective pathogens sets some people’s teeth on edge.

The fungus among us

The Sunshine Project’s Edward Hammond, and Jeremy Bigwood, who runs mycoherbicide.net, consider Sands’ fungi indiscriminate killers, posing threats to human health and to non-targeted species. Hammond and Bigwood both say that when the fungus is finished killing one organism, it will jump to others. Given the fact that Burns and other legislators advocate spraying the fungi from airplanes and helicopters, critics believe that wind and mutation will set them loose on food crops, towns and water supplies.

They also worry about the ecology of the Colombian rainforest, one of the most biologically diverse on the planet, and fear that the dense variety of species already threatened by mining, drilling, logging and farming could face a final insurmountable foe in the super fungus.

“In practice this doesn’t work at all,” says Dr. Ethan Russo of the private-sector Montana Neurobehavioral Specialists, who has monitored the idea along with Hammond and Bigwood. “Basically those of us who have studied this feel that there is no reasonable manner in which this could be used safely without the considerable risk that this would spread to food crops or other items.”

Russo, an outspoken critic of U.S. drug policy, also points out the possibility of adverse health effects on humans. People who are severely immunosuppressed because of AIDS or cancer treatments, for example, are especially vulnerable to Fusarium infections, and a minor eye injury, for instance, can lead to blindness if Fusarium is involved, says Russo.

“It’s not a common infection in people but certainly there is the potential,” he says. “Most viruses infect one species, but when you’ve got a fungal agent that can affect not only plants but people, that means it’s pretty broad in its effects and dangers. It’s the kind of thing that should make people think.”

Russo is admittedly no expert on Fusarium or fungi in general, but he says he’s spent more than six years reading everything he could get his hands on about the subject.

Masterson and Lee have also made Fusarium research a hobby, and have drawn the same conclusions as Russo, Hammond and Bigwood.

“A lot of scientists think this stuff is more dangerous because it’s alive. It can adapt and change and mutate,” says Allen Lee. “It’s a new organism that never existed before.”

These theories makes Sands bristle. Just another case of people flaunting scientific ignorance and watching “too many Japanese horror movies,” he says.

“As far as we know,” says Sands, “we’ve never changed the host range,” which is to say, however conditionally, that his fungi don’t attack plants they weren’t designed to attack.

“The problem will be the word ‘mutant’. People think that a pathogen can mutate and jump on a new host.” Sands says that’s a mathematical impossibility. “The poor pathogen is locked into its host probably the same way a librarian will never be a high jumper. It just isn’t going to happen.”

Dr. Norman Weeden, head of MSU’s Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology, backs up his colleague’s science.

“Usually the relationship between a pathogen and the host plant is fairly specific,” says Weeden. “If there’s chance that these pathogens will target another plant, then they could do it anyway because they are already out there in nature.”

Sands also points out that his fungi aren’t new organisms. The fungi he works with are mutants, like a boy with blonde hair and blue eyes is a mutant, he explains. They already exist in nature. He just breeds them, like dogs or horses, to be stronger.

“We don’t need genetic modification or GMOs or all that stuff,” says Sands. “We simply know what to select for. It’s just like breeding a Yellow Delicious apple from a normal Red Delicious. This is a whole new technology and a whole new way to make a kinder and friendlier way to kill weeds.”

Endgame

Even as President Bush eyes plans to invade Iraq with hopes of destroying (or at least exposing) that country’s alleged biological weapons programs, U.S. legislators are hoping to rekindle the homefront development of biological mycoherbicides to aid in the ongoing war on drugs. Rep. John Mica (R-Florida), a senior drug policy legislator, addressed the Committee on Government Reform last month on his desire that the U.S. move ahead with the use of biological agents in Colombia.

“Things that have been studied for too long need to be put into action,” said Mica, in reference to mycoherbicides. “It would do a lot of damage...it will eradicate some of these crops for substantial periods of time.”

Burns shares Mica’s views, and if the two lawmakers can convince others that the idea is a good one, Burns will ask for money again.

“[Burns’] position is that if there’s a technology that can benefit the state, then it’s absolutely right to appropriate money for it,” says the senator’s press secretary Eric Bvim.

The federal government’s 1999 funding for Plan Colombia–a massive economic aid package–required that country to allow U.S. testing of Fusarium oxysporum in Colombia in exchange for U.S. monies. President Clinton, citing concerns about the proliferation of biological weapons, was eventually persuaded to waive the testing provision, but leadership in both countries’ capitols has changed since 1999, reawakening the possibility that Washington may be more aggressive and Bogotá more receptive in promoting the use of mycoherbicide technology. Certainly the wheels have been put in motion again.

Eight months ago, Burns met with U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Anne Patterson and discussed the use of mycoherbicides.

“Senator Burns confronted the ambassador on the efficacy of this herbicide to kill the drug crop,” says Bvim. “He asked why they aren’t using it when it’s been proven to eliminate drugs.”

Patterson told Burns that the Colombians favored more firepower—including Apache helicopters—and not the widespread deployment of mycoherbicides, says Bvim. Burns came away from the meeting still advocating the spraying of mycoherbicides.

Bvim also adds that Burns doesn’t consider the technology dangerous. Whether it’s called biocontrol or biowarfare is a matter of semantics, he says, and Burns is in favor of using technology he believes will work.

“The bottom line is that this is biological. But cocaine is cocaine and cocaine kills people,” says Bvim. “Cocaine kills communities and it doesn’t really matter how you go about eliminating the cocaine.

Certainly we’re not going to go out and torch villages, but spraying an herbicide which is no different from us spraying for bugs on our tomato plants or rose plants holds weight in this office.”

But even if Burns is able to secure money for continued research, he’ll have to find himself a new scientist, says Sands. The MSU professor has been burned before, and doesn’t want to repeat the experience. Replacing him won’t be easy, but Sands, one of the world’s only experts in the field, and certainly Montana’s only expert, says he won’t have anything to do with drug crop eradication.

“It’s just not worth the hassle and I’ve got other important things to keep me busy,” he says, referring to his current quest to rid Montana of its noxious weeds. But even Sands admits there’s not much money in noxious weeds. The war on drugs, on the other hand, is fed by a seemingly endless flow of government cash.

Masterson, Hammond and other critics are convinced that Sands will have his mind changed by the almighty dollar if Burns ever secures funding. Then again, Jeremy Bigwood isn’t convinced that Sands’ Ag/Bio Con isn’t being funded right now, with money from Bush’s “black budget,” which remains secret for national security reasons.

But Sands is adamant that the project is dead.

Sands won’t answer questions about the ethics of his former project, or the moral logic behind spraying foreign soil with American-made mycoherbicides. He also won’t offer his opinion as to the technology’s readiness. Three years ago, he was giving presentations on behalf of Ag/Bio Con to retired Naval officers and drug czars, explaining why and how it would work. Now he says his new fungus—the one that attacks knapweed—needs more time and more funding to be successful.

Sands says his drug war is in the past, and as a scientist he’s looking toward the future, wherein he hopes to be remembered as a weed killer, not a drug warrior. And as long as he’s not hiding some fungal Frankenstein’s monster behind the doors of his private lab in Bozeman, maybe he’ll have that chance.

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