Saturday, July 20, 2002

Prices up for plant that some claim can fool drug tests




By The Associated Press

        PIKEVILLE - Claims that an Appalachian plant can make illicit drugs undetectable in the bloodstream may have helped to generate the current boon for root diggers in the mountain region.

        The tiny yellow roots of goldenseal plants are fetching $18 to $22 a pound straight out of the woods and up to $45 a pound on the retail market thanks in part to the demand by drug users.

        Jim Chamberlain, a research scientist with the U.S. Forest Service in Blacksburg, Va., said the prices have made goldenseal popular among Appalachian root diggers who have been collecting it by the tons.

        The situation has raised concern about the possibility of overharvesting the plant that thrives in the moist soils of the eastern hardwood forests.

        Ironically, Chamberlain said claims about the plant's drug-masking qualities are false.

        “If you talk to people who are knowledgeable about medicinal plants, they'll all tell you unequivocally that it isn't true,” he said. “It will not mask drugs in your system.”

        Milford Boyd, general manager of Wilcox Natural Products in Pikeville, said the price paid to diggers has fluctuated between $20 and $40 a pound for the past decade, resulting in huge quantities of goldenseal being traded. He has several garbage bags filled with the root that he has purchased from diggers this year.

        In the mountains of eastern Kentucky, people who have supplemented their incomes for years by digging herbs are enjoying the higher prices, said John Cotten, the state Department of Agriculture's goldenseal expert.

        “The harvest of these plants and the use of these plants is a cultural industry and a way of life here in the United States that goes back to the days of the pilgrims,” Cotten said.

        Chamberlain said the demand for goldenseal could lead to protections similar those given ginseng, a highly sought-after plant that brought an average of $225 a pound last year. He said further study is needed before that determination can be made about goldenseal.

        “It's not considered endangered, but there is concern for the populations,” he said.

        Overharvesting forced state and federal agencies to outlaw the digging of ginseng until after berries ripen in late summer, and to require that the berries be immediately planted in the same place that the plant is dug.

        Steven Dentali, vice president for scientific and technical affairs for the American Herbal Products Association, said 6 1/2 tons of goldenseal was dug and sold from the southern Appalachian region in 1999, the last year for which figures were available.

        Dentali said it's unfortunate that some people mistakenly believe the plant can cover up drug use.

        “It's a myth,” he said. “There's no way it could work. Those tests are specific to identifying the structures of certain compounds. They're not fooled by adding something else in. If anything, it could cause a false positive.”

        Dentali said the growth in the herbal medicine industry has had more of a bearing on the growing popularity of goldenseal. He said the plant is commonly used as a digestive aid and to treat colds and flu.

        For many of the diggers, the plant is seen simply as a treatment for an empty wallet.

        “I know there are some people who make their sole income from this,” Chamberlain said. “Many of the areas where we're talking about have high unemployment rates. This could mean Christmas presents, or it may mean new shoes for somebody.”

       



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- Prices up for plant that some claim can fool drug tests