Article by Paul Rogers, Simon Whitby, & Malcolm Dundo (c) 1999

Last year (1999) the U.S. Congress approved a $23-million antidrug program that includes research on plant pathogens.

Among the target plants are those that produce narcotics such as cocaine, heroin and marijuana. Advocates of the program hail it as a potential breakthrough. Representative Bill McCollum of Florida, one of the co-sponsors of the legislation, said, "All of the indications are that this has the potential for making a big difference in the drug war.... This could be the silver bullet." Article I of the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) bans the development, production and stockpiling of biological agents intended "for hostile purposes or in armed conflict." Also outlawed are biological weapons "that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes." Proponents of the use of plant pathogens against drug crops therefore point out that they would be used in cooperative proqrams with states in which the drugs are produced. Opponents of the plans have three concerns. One is that induced epidemics might, in some circumstances, spread to other plants.

Another is that plant pathogens could be used in drug-producing regions without the consent of the state in question. Whereas such use might be popular with antidrug agencies, it would almost certainly breach the BTWC and also set a dangerous precedent. The greatest concern, however, is that the development of a capability to destroy drug crops with plant pathogens will inevitably provide a wealth of knowledge and practical experience that could readily be applied in much more aggressive, offensive biological warfare targeting food crops.