The Drug Enforcement Administration has agreed to stop spraying the herbicide paraquat on marijuana fields until next Friday, when a federal judge will rule on a request for a more permanent halt to the spraying program.
Appearing before U.S. District Court Judge June L. Green yesterday, Royce C. Lamberth, chief of the U.S. Attorney's civil division here, said the voluntary delay would give the government time to prepare responses to two suits filed Thursday in an effort to end the program.
"The acting administrator of the DEA Francis M. Mullen Jr. has authorized me to say that there are no plans to spray until next Friday," Lamberth said in court, later informing the judge that the DEA had specifically agreed not to spray.
Next Friday's hearing is to determine if Green will temporarily halt the program until the two suits are tried.
In one of the suits, the Washington-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) asked for an injunction against the spraying and $30 million in damages for its 7,000 members, who were described in the suit as users of marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes.
The suit said paraquat is a dangerous chemical that impairs the health of marijuana smokers and non-smokers alike because it contaminates the environment. Claiming the spraying constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment," the suit also contends that the government violated its own environmental guidelines when deciding to go ahead with the program.
A second suit by the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, seeks an end to the spraying on the grounds it damages the environment, but that suit does not ask for monetary damages.
Referring to the agreement to suspend the spraying for a week, Kevin B. Zeese, national director of NORML, said yesterday: "This is a big victory for us. This is the harvest season. I think we have an excellent chance of winning this. That's why the government backtracked so easily."
Zeese said not all the members of NORML use marijuana. Noting that 11 states now assess non-criminal penalties for possession of marijuana, he said, "We are not all criminal users."
The Justice Department, in a statement, said it will respond to the suits in court.