If a financial reporter botches a story about municipal bonds, Wall Street traders will lynch him. If a sportswriter misstates the infield fly rule, the bleacher bums will visit his office and puke on him. But because no organized constituency monitors drug journalism, journalists who file thoroughly uninformed articles on the topic get away with it again and again.
The latest examples of rotten drug journalism to be reviewed in this column come from the Associated Press and Reuters.
On Dec. 19, AP moved a 720-word story titled "Mexican Soldiers Swarm Drug Plantations, Find Hybrid Marijuana Plant." Detailing efforts to eradicate a "new high-yield hybrid marijuana" in the tropical mountains of Michoacan, AP makes the herb sound like the Dracula of the plant world. It can't be killed with pesticides and if cut down grows back unless you uproot it. Known as "Colombians" and first seen "about two years ago," the plants mature in just two months and can be cultivated 12 months a year. (The International Herald Tribune'sWeb site ran the longest version of the AP story.)
The only named source about the Michoacan supergrass is Mexican Army Gen. Manuel Garcia, who spoke to a "handful of media outlets allowed to accompany soldiers on a daylong raid of some 70 marijuana fields," AP reports. The general goes on to claim that "These plants have been genetically improved."
Now, it could be that somewhere in Transylvania—or even Medellín—a depraved count has labored in his laboratory to perfect Dracuweed and seeded the tropics with it. But I can't locate anybody in the scientific community who has heard of this exotic cannabis. If the "Colombians" hybrid marijuana (doesn't AP mean "Colombian"?) has been around for two years, you would expect that another news organization might have written about it. Yet my Nexis, Factiva, and Google searches come up empty.
Could it be that there is nothing extraordinary about this variety of pot?
A "new high-yield hybrid" that is "genetically improved" sounds scientific, even coming out of the mouth of a Mexican general. But what does it really mean? Hybrids are created whenever planters crossbreed varieties of a plant or between species, and by definition the successful ones are "genetically improved." The corn you eat is probably hybrid, as are your soybeans and tomatoes. And there's nothing "new" about hybrid marijuana. For a half century or longer, marijuana cultivators around the world have aggressively crossbred plants to improve yield (tons per acre) and potency (more THC per ounce).
Should we be impressed with the supergrass's high yield? AP reports that "traffickers can now produce as much marijuana on a plot the size of a football field as they used to harvest from four or five hectares (10 to 12 acres)." Oddly, the article doesn't say how many pounds that one acre produces, making the high-yieldness of variety impossible to verify.
A football field—exclusive of its two end zones—covers a little over an acre. If AP is saying that growers now produce as much pot planting the hybrid on one acre as they once did planting conventional marijuana (whatever that is) on 10 acres, I say, so what? Why attribute the higher yield to the hybrid alone? Smaller plots of most crops outyield larger plots because planters tend to extend more TLC to each plant under cultivation, whether the plant is marijuana or tomatoes.
One clue that TLC—and not an exotic hybrid—should deserve credit for higher yields in the Mexican plantation can be found in the long version of the AP article. Not every newspaper carried AP's paragraph about some of the raided plots having "sophisticated irrigation systems with sprinklers, pumps and thousands of yards (meters) of tubing." Irrigated plots tend to produce greater yields than nonirrigated plots, a fact mankind has appreciated for 4,000 years. If the Michoacan pot farmers are irrigating their small plots, surely they're pruning the plants more aggressively than they did the plants on their larger plantations in order to produce more THC-drenched flowers.
Finally, Gen. Garcia alleges that the Dracuweed is resistant to herbicide, although he doesn't say which herbicide. As every farmer and cultivator of weed-free lawns knows, plants develop resistance to herbicides via natural selection, without any guidance from breeders. If growers have deliberately bred a herbicide-resistant plant or exploited one that they discovered, I'd love AP to get a botanist—as opposed to a Mexican general—to confirm it. Likewise, if these plants reach maturation more quickly than other varieties, I'd like a scientist to say so. I await the AP follow-up.
Proof that AP has no monopoly on stupid pot stories came in October, when Reuters ran its piece about marijuana in Afghanistan. (See the reprint on Defensetech or dial it up on Nexis.) Datelined Ottawa, the story reports that Canadian troops battling Taliban forces "have stumbled across an unexpected and potent enemy—almost impenetrable patches of 10-foot-tall marijuana plants."
Gen. Rick Hillier claims the Taliban fighters use the plants as cover, and that efforts to burn the crops with white phosphorous and diesel have failed.
Well, knock me over with a dirty bong! To begin with, finding 10-foot-tall marijuana plants in a country like Afghanistan isn't any more shocking than stumbling upon 10-foot-tall corn plants in Nebraska. As for impenetrability, I suspect the average Nebraska corn field is as impassable to troops as the average marijuana farm in Afghanistan.
But what of the failure of white phosphorous and diesel to make ash of the Afghan marijuana forest? You couldn't incinerate a green corn field with those fuels, so why expect to take out a green marijuana field with them?
If the Canadians really wanted to show the Taliban they're serious about marijuana eradication, they should have called in a napalm strike.
Thanks to reader John McCloskey, who forwarded the Mexican pot story to me, and to associate professor George Weiblen of the University of Minnesota's Department of Plant Biology for his expertise. Send stupid drug stories of this or any week to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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