'Devil's breath': one of the most dangerous drugs in the world?

Scopolamine 'can turn people into willing zombies' and was rumoured to have been the first 'truth serum'

Devil's breath
(Image credit: berichard/Wikimedia )

A drug commonly known as 'devil's breath' is being used by gangs of criminals in Colombia to incapacitate victims by putting them into a zombie-like state.

There have also been reports that the powdered drug was blown into the faces of two victims in Paris recently, who allowed the criminals to rob them, but experts are sceptical.

It has been called the most dangerous drug in the world – but can it really turn you into a zombie?

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What is it?

Scopolamine, also known as burandanga, comes from the nightshade plants which grow all around the world, but are in abundance in South and Central America. It has limited medical use and is typically used in very low doses to alleviate motion sickness and has been used in Alzheimer's trials.

But it is a drug with a "rich backstory", says The Guardian's Emine Saner. It is rumoured to have been one of the first "truth serums" - used as an interrogation tool by the Nazis, the Soviets, the CIA, and witches in the Middle Ages. "It's hard to know which are urban myths and which are genuine," says Saner.

What effect does it have?

Scopolamine is a strong amnesiac which causes the same level of memory loss as diazepam, according to the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. In high doses it is able to completely incapacitate a person - but would it really turn a person into a willing zombie?

"It would completely zonk you out," says Val Curran, professor of pharmacology at UCL's Clinical Pharmacology Unit. "But I don't know about removing free will. It incapacitates you because you'd feel so drowsy; you wouldn’t remember what was going on."

Dr Les King, chemist and former forensic scientist says getting hold of the drug in the UK would be very difficult. "It's not a drug you can buy [on the street] in the way you might buy some other new psychoactive substance, some legal high, or whatever," he told The Guardian. "It's not available in that sense because it’s not a drug you would want to take for any pleasurable purpose." Curran agrees: "[It is] horrible stuff."

How dangerous is it?

The US State Department warns that scopolamine can render a victim unconscious for 24 hours or more and in large enough doses can cause respiratory failure and death. It advises tourists travelling to Colombia to be aware that criminals often use the drug to rob their victims in night clubs and bars. "Usually men, perceived to be wealthy, are targeted by young, attractive women," it says.

However, there is no evidence the drug is being used to target victims in Europe says King. "The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction has never had any mention of scopolamine being used in this way."

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