In a recent article on MissoulaNews.com, Western Montana’s weekly journal of “people, politics, and culture,” staff reporter Jed Gottlieb follows a long line of journalists in investigating the case of Dr. David Sands, one of the world’s few experts on mycoherbicides, fungi that kill other plants. Sands’ day job is as a Montana State University (MSU) scientist. His work made national news when the federal government picked up mycoherbicides as a possible replacement for toxic chemicals in its campaign to destroy coca and cannabis crops in Colombia, a weighty proposition that, back in 1999, earned Sands a surplus of unwanted attention. MSU pulled the plug on Sands’ funding after word of his clandestine research leaked to the public, escorted by a swirl of inhospitable headlines such as “drug lords” and “killer fungi.”
Now Sands is back to his original work: local weed control, land mine detection and grain projects. A large, orange biohazard sticker on his refrigerator gives Gottlieb the chance to speculate about the prospect of biological weapons behind closed doors, but all that’s in there is mold and tomato juice. Sands is evasive about his past work, saying he has neither the time, the desire, nor the funds to work on his old projects. “It’s just not worth the hassle, and I’ve got other things to keep me busy,” he says. He did take a huge pay cut, downsizing from a generous flow of federal drug war cash to the more modest noxious weed budget.
Gottlieb earns an interview with Sands on the promise that he won’t ask any questions about his previous, drug-related work, but his intentions are clear. Three years after the fact, just what is the close-mouthed scientist up to, and which is he, gentle genius, or mad scientist?