Apocalypse Soon

This week, with America's terror alert on the second highest level, John Ashcroft commits 1200 agents to arrest makers of marijuana paraphernalia; a new report shows tobacco and alcohol account for 97 percent of drug deaths worldwide, while illegal drugs claim the remaining 3 percent; the US is on the brink of introducing biological warfare into the bio-diverse Colombian rainforest in an effort to destroy coca crops; and Afghanistan regains its title as the world's leading opium producer.

February 24 -- Associated Press reports: Federal authorities charged 55 people Monday with trafficking in illegal drug paraphernalia from coast to coast, using both traditional stores and the Internet.

A federal grand jury in western Pennsylvania handed up indictments against 27 people as part of "Operation Pipe Dreams," an investigation stretching from Pittsburgh to Phoenix to southern California, Attorney General John Ashcroft said.

Federal law makes it a crime to sell products mainly intended for the use of illegal drugs, including such things as bongs, marijuana pipes, "roach" clips, miniature spoons and scales. Those charged with selling and conspiring to sell such items face up to three years on prison and maximum fines of $250,000.

February 25 -- Tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs prematurely kill about 7 million people worldwide each year and the number is rising, according to a study released in Australia on Tuesday.

Professor Juergen Rehm, director of Switzerland's Addiction Research Institute, said tobacco was the number one killer addiction in 2000, responsible for 4.9 million deaths or 71 percent of the total drug-related deaths -- a jump of more than one million since 1990.

About 1.8 million deaths were attributable to the use of alcohol, about 26 percent of all drug-related deaths, with the proportion greatest in the Americas and Europe. Russia's alcohol problem was particularly pronounced.

Illicit drugs caused about 223,000 deaths, or three percent of all drug-related deaths.

March 1 -- UK's The Ecologist reports: As the US threatens to attack Iraq for supposedly harbouring biological weapons, news emerges of a US plan to conduct a biological war of its own.

A plan to use an untested pathogenic fungus -- Fusarium oxysporum -- in Colombia's US-funded 'war on drugs' resurfaced in the US House of Representatives in December 2002. Critics say the plan proposes illegal acts of biological warfare, poses major ecological risks to one of the world's most bio-diverse countries, and will increase the human damage of a failed eradication policy.

Fusarium oxysporum is a well-known plant pathogen that causes damage and large losses in food and industrial crops worldwide. There are many associated health risks. Human Fusarium infection (fusariosis) is an emerging, life-threatening disease with a mortality rate as high as 70 per cent. Concentrated aerosols of fungal spores are known to cause dermal and respiratory difficulties in humans.

The global outrage at the spraying of Agent Orange and other environmentally malign potions across South-east Asia during the Vietnam war led to ENMOD -- the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques. Adopted by the UN in 1976 and ratified by the US, ENMOD prohibits any signatory nation from using the environment as a weapon of war -- which the spraying of Colombia constitutes by definition.

March 2 -- The Australian reports: Afghanistan has toppled Burma as the world's top source of illicit opium.

In a major drugs strategy report, Washington backed up figures released by the United Nations last week showing an increase in poppy cultivation since the ouster of Afghanistan's former Taliban rulers.

"The size of the opium harvest in 2002 makes Afghanistan the world's leading opium producer, the report said. "Trafficking of Afghan opium and heroin refined in numerous laboratories inside Afghanistan creates serious problems for Afghanistan and its neighbours."

The International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, collated by the State Department from US posts abroad, said the area under opium cultivation in the country last year reached 30,750 hectares.

The figure rose from a low of 1,685 hectares in 2001 after the fundamentalist Taliban, later ousted by a US-led war, banned opium production.

Send tips and comments to Kevin Nelson.

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