THE MAGIC BULLET

September 25, 2007

IT IS THE DRUG WARRIOR'S DREAM: A
chemical applied from the air that makes coca plants
shrivel up and die. No need to dig them up by hand, as now.
No need to come face to face with irate growers or their
guns. In the dream, herbicides are a Magic Bullet for the
drug war.
The U.S. government has been looking for an effective
coca herbicide for years (exactly how many is a govern-
ment secret, but at least since the late 1970s). Scientists at
U.S. and South American universities and at the U.S. De-
partment of Agriculture have received funding to carry out
theqpest. Unfortunately for them, coca is a sturdy little
shrub that is able to survive dosing with defoliants like
paraquat and 2,4-D, the chemicals that work so well against
opium poppies and marijuana. Defoliant herbicides make
the coca plants shed their leaves. but the plants don't die
and the leaves often grow back bushier than ever,
Officials tried using 2,4-D to wipe out some of the Bo-
livian coca crop in 1982. Their experiment came to a speedy
halt in the wake of massive demonstrations in the coca
growing regions and protests by local scientists concerned
about possible environmental damage. Some of the Boliv-
ian press reported the chemical used in the program was
actually Agent Orange--a mixture of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T
used to strip the jungles of Vietnam. This did nothing to
cool local tempers.
In 1985, the herbicide triclopyr, sold by Dow Chemical
company as Garlon-4, was used aerially to eradicate 2,500
acres of coca in Colombia. Testing was stopped when Dow
refused to sell the government more Garlon-4 unless the
company was indemnified against damage suits. History
has made Dow a bit touchy: As the supplier of the Agent
Orange used in Vietnam, the company has already faced
massive suits by veterans suffering from cancer and other
health problems.
In 1986, Congress appropriated $1 million for cqca
herbicide research and in March, 1988, during a visit to
Peru, then-Attorney General Edwin Meese made an an-
nouncement that briefly overshadowed his personal legal
troubles at home. Meese said an effective and safe coca
herbicide had finally been found. Officials confirmed that
aerial testing was imminent, and some believed a coca
herbicide would be in wide-scale use by the end of the year.
A State Department report optimistically predicted the de-
struction of 25,000 acres of coca a year in Peru, a signifi-
cant increase over the 900 acres destroyed in 1987.
Meese never named the herbicide to be used in the tests
but word soon leaked that it was tebuthiuron, sold by Eli
Lilly & Co. under the brand name Spike. Tebuthiuron is
not a defoliant, but rather an herbicide designed especially
to kill woody plants like coca. Along with five other herbi-
cides,* it had been tested on a small plot in Peru's Huallaga Valley starting in October, 1987. It did indeed kill coca. And it had indeed been approved by the U.S. Environ-
mental Protection Agency. But the EPA-mandated label, which warns that Spike "is an extremely active herbicide
which will kill trees, shrubs and other forms of desirable vegetation" and should be kept "out of lakes, ponds, and
streams," underscored criticisms by environmentalists. They
argued that the Huallaga test was too short and poorly planned to prove that Spike would not harm the delicate
tropical ecosystem.
In May, as the chorus of criticism grew louder, Eli Lilly
announced that it would not sell Spike to the U.S. govern- ment for use in the eradication program. U.S. officials
hinted that they would obtain the chemical somehow--or
that a substitute would be used. Both Garlon-4 and hexa-
zinone, an herbicide made by Dupont and sold under the
name Velpar, have been mentioned as possible substitutes,
though they have reportedly not proven as effective as
Spike in killing coca. In any event, soon after Lilly made its
announcement, the Peruvian government quietly decided that aerial testing should be postponed until the government
completed its own evaluation of the program. (Preliminary
aerial tests may begin as early as this year.)
In Washington, there is still optimism that large-scale
aerial use of coca herbicides will come sooner rather than
later. U.S. officials say environmental concerns are over- blown, and that, in any case, the coca producers themselves
do far more damage when they cut tropical forest to plant
coca. Critics of the program respond that herbicide use
would only compound this damage, since eradicated pro-
ducers would simply move on and cut new plots in the vast
tropical wilderness where coca thrives.
As a 1988 State Department report admits, the govern-
ments of the producer countries are the main obstacle to
wider herbicide use. Bolivia has flatly ruled out large-scale
herbicide use (though small ground tests are reportedly underway). Bolivian officials say their concerns are envi-
ronmental, but they appear to have other worries as well: "I
can understand why the Bolivians are reluctant to use the
stuff," says a Western diplomat, recalling what happened in
1982. "They could have civil war on their hands if they
tried that again." JAK
*Hexazinone, glyphosate, dicamba, picloram, and cacodylic acid. Picloram, sold by Dow asbut is in disrepute among environmental scientists.

Tags: Coca, aerial eradication, poison, US drug war


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