Why Is It Legal To Own Anthrax?

If a cop walks into your living room, looks on the mantelpiece, and sees an ashtray with a few joints in it, he can arrest you. If that same cop walks into your living room, looks on the mantelpiece, and sees a Petri dish growing anthrax spores, he can’t arrest you. That’s because possession of anthrax is not a crime unless it can be proved that it’s “for use as a weapon.”

Oh, sure, there are a few more legal restrictions. If you want to get your anthrax culture from a U.S. lab, you have to obtain permission from the Centers for Disease Control and the Agriculture Department. This is basically impossible if you can’t demonstrate that you’re a serious research scientist. The relevant law was passed in 1996 in response to an incident in which a member of the white-supremacist group Aryan Nations purchased three vials of plague bacteria by mail. At the time, the only thing he could be prosecuted for was wire fraud (he’d used phony letterhead to make it look as though he ran a laboratory). Indeed, Iraq’s biological weapons program is said to have gotten started during the mid-1980s with the perfectly legal purchase of anthrax from a company based in Virginia. Apparently, the going price was less than $50 per vial. Purchasing anthrax from an overseas lab, meanwhile, remains legal today under some circumstances, and it’s quite easy. According to the Oct. 22 Time, as of last week, nearly 50 foreign sources were still advertising that it was available.

If you want some anthrax, you don’t necessarily have to purchase it from a lab. You can just dig it up someplace where anthrax is known to have infected livestock. “Growing this organism is no problem,” Norman Cheville, dean of Iowa State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, explained on Oct. 14 to Charles Ornstein of the Los Angeles Times. Apparently, it’s somewhat more of a problem to make sure you end up with a really deadly strain. “A terrorist would almost certainly have to make many isolation efforts before finding a strain that was as potent as desired, and perhaps many more to find a drug-resistant strain,” Rick Weiss reported in the Oct. 12 WashingtonPost. But terrorists tend to be highly motivated people! It’s difficult to steer an airliner into the World Trade Center, but we learned Sept. 11 that it can be done.

Fighting terrorism entails a lot of complex challenges and poses many hard questions about the kind of society we want to live in. Among these Chatterbox does not count the issue of whether deliberate possession of anthrax, a substance that has no legitimate use to anyone who isn’t a research scientist, ought to be legal. We can argue about what the precise penalty should be, but Chatterbox senses there’s a broad consensus that it should be at least as severe as that for possession of marijuana.