Agency of Fear
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Agency of Fear

Opiates and Political Power in America

By Edward Jay Epstein

Chapter 17 - The Screw Worm


On June 10, 197 1, at 3: 10 in the afternoon, President Nixon met a miracle worker"-at least that was the way that Egil Krogh, Jr., introduced Dr. Jerome Jaffe, a well-respected pharmacologist and psychiatrist with immaculate liberal credentials in his home city of Chicago. The president, already briefed by Krogh on how Jaffe had single-handedly reduced the crime rate in Chicago through the magic of distributing methadone and other treatment services to drug addicts, asked Jaffe why, if his program had been so successful, Mayor Daley was not aware of it. Dr. Jaffe, always exuding confidence, replied, according to the memo in the President's File, "Daley did not have to know about the program because I was taking care of the mayor's city" (apparently meaning that his drug program had succeeded in reducing the number of drug addicts in Chicago). "What was your bag in terms of treatment?" the president asked. Jaffe replied by describing a complex series of programs including "therapeutic communities ... methadone detoxification ... methadone maintenance [and] occasionally psychiatry," which produced, according to Jaffe, a "40 percent decrease in crime." The president, obviously impressed, though uninterested in the details of the program, suggested the possibility of the death penalty for those in the narcotics business. Jaffe, distressed, attempted to change the subject by suggesting that as law enforcement became more efficient, the price of heroin would increase, and therefore there would be a need for an enormous "treatment capacity"-the type he could provide-as an alternative to crime for heroin addicts. Attempting to impress the president with the possibility of a technological solution, the miracle doctor reported that work was progressing on a saliva test to detect heroin which would replace the urine test presently being used in Vietnam. (He explained, according to the memo, "It is easier for men than women to get urine into a bottle.") The president seemed unimpressed. Jaffe next suggested that with more money they might be able to develop a "narcotic antagonistic" which could "block" addicts from receiving any sensation from heroin. He further suggested, at another point, that Naloxone, an already existing antagonist, could be used to demonstrate to servicemen the dangers of heroin addiction; since it would bring about a precipitous set of withdrawal symptoms. The president "opted for using this method [in Vietnam] even though there was the remote possibility of a few fatalities." 

As the meeting drew to a close at four o'clock, Dr. Jaffe suddenly came up with a technological solution that caught the president's fancy-"an insect which could consume poppy crops." According to the memo in Krogh's file, "The President became excited about the idea and called Secretary of Agriculture [Hardin] in order to get information on the insect which he had heard to be bred in such a way as to insure its own destruction.... The President remarked that the insect died after intercourse. A member of the group suggested that this insect be called the 'screw worm.' " The president then spent fifteen minutes discussing the screw worm with Dr. Jaffe, according to Krogh. The president wanted Edward Land, the founder and developer of the Polaroid camera, and William Lear, the founder of Lear Jets, "brought in to help develop this concept." He ordered Secretary Hardin, still on the phone, to move ahead at full speed in developing the screw worm, promising to obtain a special appropriation for it from Congress. Private millionaires and the Agriculture Department would thus all be part of a secret project to develop an insect that ate the poppies that produced the opium that supplied the heroin that obsessed President Nixon.

On June 17, less than a week after President Nixon heard of (or invented) the screw worm, the president asked Congress for a special supplementary appropriation for the war on heroin which, among other things, would provide "two million dollars to the Department of Agriculture for research and development of herbicides which can be used to destroy growths of narcotics-producing plants without adverse ecological effects." Since a herbicide is defined simply as a "substance used to destroy plants," Nixon's speech writers were at least temporarily able to disguise the screw worm as an innocent-sounding ecological weed-killer.

With the screw worm being biologically designed at the Department of Agriculture's Stoneville (Mississippi) laboratories, where scientists experimented in producing various mutations of weevils by manipulating their life cycles, President Nixon was finally able to launch a worldwide campaign, under the supervision of Krogh, to eradicate all the poppies in the world. Although Turkey had already agreed to eliminate the poppy cultivation in its Anatolian provinces, most of the world's poppies grew in countries which were not vulnerable to the sort of political pressures put on Turkey by the United States (and NATO). Krogh fully realized that if the demand for heroin continued, other poppy areas would rapidly fill the vacuum left by Turkey-especially at the then current market price of $500 a pound for morphine base in Europe. The new coordinator for international narcotics control, Nelson Gross, argued that "it wasn't enough to eliminate opium in one country. The cultivation of the opium poppy had to be ended throughout the world." Nixon tentatively agreed with Gross and endorsed the idea of possibly using the screw worm in the so-called Golden Triangle, an area including parts of Burma, Laos, and Thailand.

Before the poppies of the Golden Triangle (and elsewhere) could be eliminated through biological warfare, they first had to be located and scientifically charted. Gross managed to enlist the support of Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and of the Air Force, which supplied specially equipped SR71 planes, the successor to the U2 spy planes, and Air Force reconnaissance Phantom planes for mapping out the poppy fields of Burma, Thailand, Laos, and other nations. Finally, after all the bad publicity the Department of Defense had received in Vietnam, it appeared'to Laird that Phantoms and SR7 Is could be used to alleviate a domestic problem-heroin addiction. But the planes came precariously close to the Chinese border, creating  more than one potential incident and threatening the d6tente with China that Henry Kissinger was then busily working on. As much as Kissinger and the National Security Council would like to help in the war against the poppy, the word came down from Kissinger himself that the overflights of Burmese poppy fields would have to be curtailed. 

The gap was quickly filled by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which was determined to demonstrate that the space program could be used to help society fight domestic problems such as heroin. NASA offered to make the Earth Resources Technological Satellite available for photographing poppy fields all over the world, thereby eliminating the overflight problem. To obtain an authentic "signature" for photoreconnaissance from the satellite, the Department of Agriculture obligingly planted poppy fields in Louisiana and Arizona (photographs of which would be compared with photographs taken of the suspected poppy fields by the spy satellite).

While NASA prepared to search for poppy fields from outer space, the Department of Agriculture actually created a voracious screw worm that would rapidly proliferate and destroy any poppy field in the world. Dr. Quentin Jones, Agriculture's man on the case, modestly explained that the poppy weevil "might be offered to such countries as Laos and Pakistan whose poppy fields border on those of Burma and Afghanistan," and suggested to Gross and Krogh that the Department of Agriculture had two alternatives: Plan A or Plan B. Plan A would entail a crash program of all the resources of the department and would be put to the task of getting a poppy weevil airborne within six months. It could be expected to destroy the world's poppy crops within a year. Plan B involved continued experiments for a year to determine whether the screw worm was host specific. Krogh inquired what "host specific" meant. Dr. Jones explained that if the screw worm was host specific, It would eat the world's poppy crops and then die when it had exhausted the supply of poppies. If, on the other hand, the weevil-or any mutation of it-was not host specific, it would adapt to another host, such as rice or wheat. The specter of an American screw worm eradicating the wheat and rice crops as well as the poppies of Asia was sufficient to dampen the enthusiasm of the president for the crash weevil-development program. Even if the screw worm and its mutants were host specific, the State Department argued, they still might cross international boundaries,, and work themselves into the licit poppy fields of the Soviet Union, thereby undermining detente. Given these drawbacks, the screw worm was relegated to a long-term experimental program which would be made operational only if it produced a. categorically host-specific weevil that would also stop at international borders.


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