In early 2003, our weekly “News-to-Use” included three disparate bits of intel that, when put together, made an intriguing picture: (1) Pakistanis in the tribal regions were sneezing; (2) a 60-year-old DoD skunk works project had borne fruit; and (3) dandelions can make you high.
(1) Ambrosia, commonly known as ragweed and native to North and South America, hitched a ride to Europe in the 19th century. The joy of hay fever has been spreading across Europe ever since. Apparently, the winds of recent wars have carried ragweed farther east, where it has found a suitable niche in the valley ecosystems of northern Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. It’s been found in Waziristan province as well, and as far south as Quetta. We requested specimens and seeds from an expat cell, and what we received seemed to be a cross between A. artemisiifolia, the most widespread species in North America, and A. dumosa, one that thrives in the Sonoran Desert. The Pakistani species was said to be a particularly noxious weed that pumped out clouds of pollen.
(2) Since World War I, the U.S. Army’s Edgewood Arsenal and its successor unit have explored the use of chemicals in warfare, conducting open-air nerve-gas tests in Maryland and even dosing unsuspecting soldiers with superhallucinogens. Their perennial hobbyhorse has been a reliable truth serum, or at least one better than the problematic sodium pentothal. In recent decades much of the unit’s preliminary work has been outsourced to civilian researchers. In 2003, there was buzz of a breakthrough: MDMOEP, a phenethylamine compound and kissing cousin of MDMA (or ecstasy). Dubbed True Confessions, it was said to induce a state of abject self-reproach. Subjects were anxious to unburden themselves of their life’s misdeeds, and they actively sought out receptive listeners, including parties they might have injured. The drug was tested on volunteers and was said to be safe, with no lasting side effects. What a boon to the war on terror! If only it had been ready in time to avert the Abu Ghraib mess. In any case, the U.S. Army Chemical Corps swooped down on the private lab that had made the discovery, confiscated all records, and reminded all involved of the Patriot Act.
(3) A brilliant young geneticist on the West Coast was doing groundbreaking work in biopharmaceuticals, especially in the mechanics of directing what part of the plant would store the finished drug–leaf, root, seed, or fruit.
Moreover, according to our private sources, this same professor was also conducting a little biopharma project outside the purview of his university department. He was attempting to genetically modify the common dandelion to produce the marijuana cannabinoid THC. According to our report, once his stoner dandelion was perfected, the professor intended to take a sabbatical in order to scatter little parachute seeds of Mellow Yellow along roadways all over the temperate zone.
What galvanized us about these three items was the observation that both ragweed and dandelion are members of the same Asteraceae family. It made us wonder. It definitely got the wheels turning.