“It’s not a drug you can buy in the way you might buy some other new psychoactive substance, some legal high, or whatever. It’s not available in that sense because it’s not a drug you would want to take for any pleasurable purpose.”
~ Dr. Les King, chemist and former forensic scientist
Devil’s Breath: Why Scopolamine Abuse is So Terrifying
There are few substances surrounded by as much myth – and dread – as scopolamine hydrobromide. Although it is well-known as one of the oldest plant-derived alkaloids, and despite the fact that it is listed by the World Health Organization as an “essential medicine”, scopolamine is gaining a reputation as the “world’s most dangerous drug”.
In Colombia, scopolamine is called “the Devil’s Breath” – because it steals your soul
The Positives of Scopolamine
Scopolamine as it is used today was first isolated in 1880 by a German scientist, Albert Ladenburg, but it may have been used in herbal preparations since prehistoric times.
Scopolamine has been used for a number of medicinal purposes:
- Motion sickness
- Nausea/Vomiting experienced by post-operative patients
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Gastrointestinal spasms
The WHO classification as an “essential medicine” means that it is one of the most important drugs necessary in a basic healthcare setup.
The Negatives of Scopolamine
Scopolamine is made from the Borrachero tree, which is commonly found in Colombia. A rough translation of “Borrachero” is “drunken binge”, and that is an extremely mild description of what the drug produces.
When an extracted powder from the tree is consumed, inhale, or absorbed through the skin, the results have been referred to as “temporary zombification”:
- Lack of free will
- Memory loss
- Powerful, unpleasant hallucinations
- Unconsciousness lasting up to 24 hours
- At High Doses, Death
These effects are so strong that scopolamine has at times been used by governments as a “truth serum” during interrogations. The CIA says that American police were experimenting with it in 1922, and its most recent use was by the Czechoslovak government in 2008.
This use was largely discontinued, due to the negative side effects. According to the CIA, sometimes even the threat that scopolamine was going to be used resulted in the suspect confessing to their crimes.
Devil’s Breath as a Facilitator of Crime
More recently, however, Devil’s Breath is being used to commit crimes – robbery, kidnapping, or sexual assault. In Colombia, there are up to 50,000 scopolamine-related criminal assaults every year. 20% of ER visits in Bogotá are because of scopolamine poisoning. 70% of scopolamine patients have also been robbed.
The danger is real enough that in 2012, the US Department of State, as well as the Government of Canada, issued an advisory warning travelers about the possibility of targeting. Criminals using Devil’s Breath often use attractive, young women to target men that they believe are wealthy.
This isn’t confined to just Columbia, either. In 2015, three people were arrested in Paris for using the drug to rob elderly people, by blowing scopolamine powder in their faces and then taking advantage of their weakened mental condition.
Scopolamine as a Recreational Drug
In America, scopolamine medication is typically administered through a transdermal patch, because of its low mechanism, it is not a controlled substance.
Some party drug enthusiasts experiment with Devil’s Breath because of its euphoric and hallucinatory effects. However, the lack of control, the loss of memory, and the unconsciousness, meaning that scopolamine is not thought to be a particularly pleasant recreational drug. But, because the effects are so similar to Rohypnol – “roofies” – is nonetheless gaining popularity among curious and adventurous users of club drugs.
In fact, that may be the most popular way Devil’s Breath is used in America – as a date-rape drug. Not only do the drug’s effects leave the victim vulnerable to sexual assault, it also wipes out their memory – even for a period of time before they ingest the drug.
In fact, there have been accounts of hospitalizations taking place when people thought they were taking Rohypnol, but were instead taking counterfeits containing scopolamine.
Intoxicating Effects of Scopolamine Misuse
Devil’s Breath intoxication can mimic the effects of other substances – particularly alcohol or hallucinogens – but to a more pronounced degree:
- Extreme relaxation, to the point of “being out of it”
- Docility – uncharacteristically compliant or open to suggestion
Adverse Effects of Scopolamine Misuse
The abuse of scopolamine has been associated with a number of adverse, potentially dangerous effects:
- Susceptibility to criminal or sexual assault
- A cycle of slowed heart rate, followed by accelerated heart rate
- Urinary retention
- Shortness of breath
- Blurred vision
- Dilated pupils
- Inability to tolerate light
- Anaphylactic reactions and/or shock
Devil’s Breath Frightens Documentary Filmmakers
One recent story by documentary filmmaker illustrates just how scary Devil’s Breath can be.
Vice reporter Ryan Duffy traveled to Columbia to investigate scopolamine use where it is most prevalent, with the added intention of trying it out to report the drug’s effects first-hand. The film’s producer and cameraman had arrived a few days earlier, and after everything they witnessed, they quickly changed Duffy’s mind.
“By the time I arrived a few days later, things had changed dramatically. Their first few days in the country had apparently been such a harrowing montage of freaked-out dealers and unimaginable horror stories about scopolamine that we decided I was absolutely NOT going to be doing the drug.”