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Killing the drug fields: Paraquat poisoning from Operation Intercept to present

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In 1969, Richard Nixon approved Operation Intercept, to destroy Mexican marijuana plantations. He did not bother asking the Mexican government for permission beforehand. Marijuana (WP) drug cultivation in the US now exceeds that of Mexico.[1][2]

The power of US threats-as-diplomacy in global negotiations, trade or military, as evidenced by the fact that by the mid-70s, Mexico was a willing and active participant in programs aimed at eradicating cannabis plantations.

Photo of a "Rebel" marijuana crop, taken by a US Department of Justice employee, during the course of their official duties

In 1975, despite being warned by the Health Department to not allow the Mexican government to use the poisonous weed killer Paraquat in anti-narcotics operations, the State Department sent an official to Mexico to show operatives there how to more efficiently spray marijuana fields there with Paraquat from the air, in blue and white helicopters supplied by the USA.[3][4] Mexico also sprayed bullets onto Mexican fields, and into Mexican growers, from some of that $21 million worth of helicopters, converted into gunships.[3] In 1978, the State Department claimed it had ceased all operations of this type, but the Drug Enforcement Agency DEA (WP) took up Paraquat spraying again in 1988.[5] It continues to be used in drug field eradication programs, not only in other countries, where the US acts with lesser regard for the life and health of the inhabitants, but in the US as well.[6][7]

Since much of this was subsequently smoked by Americans as cannabis, the US government's "Paraquat Pot" program stirred much debate. Perhaps in an attempt to deter people from using marijuana, representatives of the program warned that spraying rendered the crop unsafe to smoke.

File:Chc bell 206.jpg
Bell 206 helicopter, one of two models sent by the US State Department to Mexico in 1975 to spray Paraquat and kill growers

An United States Environmental Protection Agency manual states: "... toxic effects caused by this mechanism have been either very rare or nonexistent. Most paraquat that contaminates marijuana is pyrolyzed during smoking to dipyridyl, which is a product of combustion of the leaf material itself (including cannabis) and presents little toxic hazard."[8] The amount of dipyridyl released by each process is not noted.

Statements by the National Institutes of Health contradict the EPA findings about the pyrolysis products of paraquat, finding that the product by pyrolysis, dipyridyl, is hazardous to human health. [9]

A 1995 study stated: "no lung or other injury in marijuana users has ever been attributed to paraquat contamination".[10]

More research into the effects of pyrolized herbicides is needed as they are also used to spray tobacco, and have continued to be used in anti-narcotics campaigns throughout the world. Paraquat spraying affects nearby crops as well, usually the cocoa, coffee, and tea grown in the same highland areas that are conducive to marijuana cultivation.[7]

The Bell 212 model. It is not stated whether one or both models were used as gunships, although the 212 is widely used by governments, and both the US and Canadian military
One specialist at the National Center for Disease Control in Atlanta pointed out that there were as yet no verified reports of illness in the U.S. due to paraquat-sprayed grass. Some experts speculated that there might be less harm in smoking paraquat than in swallowing the chemical in liquid form. "There's no doubt that paraquat causes pulmonary fibrosis when taken orally," observes a California lung physiologist, Dr. Jeff Golden, "but there's a gap as far as knowing what to expect with inhalation." Exploring the medical literature, Golden noted a report that Malaysian farm workers who accidentally inhaled paraquat while spraying with it recently suffered only temporary throat bleeding. Another reason for skepticism was voiced by University of California Toxicologist Dr. Jim Embree, who noted that after more than two years of marijuana spraying, "there should be quite a number of sick people by now."
Even so, the potential for widespread harm prompted demands that something be done about paraquat, notwithstanding the fact that marijuana itself is illegal. In Washington, Senator Percy called for a temporary halt to Mexico's marijuana spraying (but not its poppy spraying; the poppies are used to make heroin)...Dr Peter Bourne, White House special assistant for health issues...defended the spraying program itself. "Those concerned," said Bourne, "are trying to imply that marijuana without paraquat is totally safe, and we still have no evidence of that either". -Time, 1978

Applying Dr. Bourne's challenge not only to marijuana, but to the spraying programs themselves: numerous incidents of suspected ill effects of paraquat were reported in the late '70s, whereas no ill effects have ever been conclusively proven about marijuana use other than it impairs reaction times, and as with all medications, care should be taken in self-prescription.

It is also said that although spraying with paraquat kills marijuana plants soon after exposure, it does not have any effect on the active ingredients, which makes one wonder why the US government bothered using it in the first place.

With so many vested interests involved in the debate, the best way to satisfy oneself of the truth of the matter would seem to be, looking up the strictly scholarly work on the subject oneself.

Two easily available studies are Handbook of Pesticide Toxicology: Principles by Robert Irving Krieger, page 1559 and Characterization of the contamination of marijuana with paraquat.

Mexico itself has been so adversely affected by the legislation against drugs that where once only a small percentage were in favor of legalization, (mostly due to hype against them coupled with the fact that only 5% had ever tried marijuana),[11] a full 67% feel the 'war on drugs' has too deleterious an effect, vs a win for the war on drugs.[12]

Further reading[edit]

Paradox Product. Sinon do Brasil. Stop Paraquat. The Berne Declaration.
The Paraquat Information Center. Syngenta Crop Protection AG. Google News Archives search
Google News Archives search Time, 1978


  1. From the Folks who brought you Plan Colombia John Ross, Tuesday, June 19, 2007 - Plan Mexico
  2. Perspectives on drug use in the United States Bernard Segal page 16
  3. 3.0 3.1 Panic over Paraquat, Time Magazine, Monday, May 1, 1978
  4. Poison Marijuana - State Department ignored warnings... The Evening Independent - Apr 1, 1978. James Coates, Chicago Tribune
  5. Time 1988
  6. Georgia drops toxin on marijuana fields Atlanta, Record-Journal - Aug 13, 1983, United Press International report
  7. 7.0 7.1 Where It's Coca vs. Coffee / In Colombia, drugs ruining environment for the legal crops Newsday - Long Island, N.Y. Juanita Darling. Los Angeles Times
  8. J. Routt Reigart, and James R. Roberts Recognition and Management of Pesticide Poisonings, 5th edition. Washington, DC: United States Environmental Protection Agency, 1999. Book available online
  9. Toxicity of dipyridyl compounds and related compounds.[1]
  10. Pronczuk de Garbino J, Epidemiology of paraquat poisoning, in: Bismuth C, and Hall AH (eds), Paraquat Poisoning: Mechanisms, Prevention, Treatment, pp. 37-51, New York: Marcel Dekker, 1995.
  11. Marijuana Legalization
  12. California's Prop 19, on legalizing marijuana, could end Mexico's drug war Washington Post, Héctor Aguilar Camín and Jorge G. Castañeda Sunday, September 5, 2010