DeLand, Fla. — Most visitors to this state stay on interstate highways and coastal roads, never seeing a much larger aspect of Florida - its agricultural and undeveloped lands. It is in these remote areas of central Florida that law enforcement officials plan to launch a controversial attack on marijuana fields.
For years, Florida police have from time to time chopped and burned marijuana fields. But now the state, facing an apparent increase in the number of fields, wants to use a poisonous weed killer that raised major health questions when used several years ago in Mexico.
The chemical, paraquat, effectively ended Mexico's role as the No. 1 supplier of marijauna to the US. Colombia has since assumed Mexico's infamous role, and most of its export passes through Florida.
Recently, increased federal efforts to block the flow of marijuana through Florida have, according to Florida officials, increased the demand for domestically grown marijuana. Paraquat is seen here as a cheaper way to kill marijuana plants in the field - but some questions about its health effects remain unanswered.
Critics of paraquat use in the US contend the chemical may have harmed some smokers who used marijuana that had been sprayed but not killed by the poison.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a pro-marijuana group, filed suit in state court July 19 to prevent Florida from proceeding with the paraquat spraying. The group, which reportedly plans to also file in federal court in Washington next week, says the spraying would have adverse environmental and health effects.
Paraquat has been used in Florida and other states for years as a weed control in connection with a variety of food crops. But it is generally used either prior to planting or not directly on the crop itself, according to Mike Marcy, spokesman for Chevron Chemical Company, the main US distributor of the British product.
It was never intended for use on marijuana fields, says Marcy. ''We don't know what, if any, health concerns there might be'' if used on marijuana fields, he says. ''We can't say it's safe; we can't say it's unsafe,'' he added.
The use of paraquat on marijuana fields is not illegal, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but they have made no study of the possible health effects.
''We cannot say it's completely safe,'' says Dr. John Liddle, the Center for Disease Control official who was in charge of examining the health effects on users of Mexican marijuana thought to have been sprayed with paraquat. Earlier tests were inconclusive and no additional research has been done, he says.
Florida officials hope to avoid the issue of tainted marijuana reaching consumers. Their plan is to use hand sprayers and guard the fields for about 72 hours, until the paraquat has wilted the leaves, a state official says. Then the leaves would not be salable as marijuana, he says, and the crop will be chopped completely and burned.
Destroying the fields without the use of paraquat would be more costly. The plants would be harder to chop and would have to be more closely guarded until burned to avoid risk of being stolen and sold, says Bob Edwards of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Edwards says there are at least ''hundreds'' of marijuana fields in the state and that the number appears to be growing.