Scopolamine: Myths and realities

Scopolamine
A moment of carelessness could cost you dearly. Photo: Daniel Mateus

There are over 50,000 cases of Scopolamine poisoning reported every year. Nicknamed devil’s breath, it is said to turn people into zombies. But what is the truth about this drug?


“By the time I realised I had been drugged my legs were already useless and my vision was close to gone.” Dave, whose name has been changed, woke up to find his apartment had been robbed. The offenders had taken his tablet, phone, passport, social security card and bike, as well as his housemate’s computer.

If you have been in Colombia for any length of time, this story won’t be unfamiliar – you’re almost certain to know someone who has had their drink spiked. Or you’ve been unfortunate enough that it’s happened to you.

You’ll have heard the stories of a drug that robs people of their free will, and makes them vulnerable to whoever may ask for their PIN number or address. You may have watched the documentary called Devil’s Breath – one of the nicknames for scopolamine – which portrays a drug that can be administered by spiking a drink, or even just by being blown in the victim’s face. The effects include extreme susceptibility, a zombie-like demeanour, and amnesia.

But while the impact of the drug is undoubtedly serious, it is important to distinguish between the hearsay and the facts.

What is scopolamine?

Scopolamine
The Burundanga plant in its natural state. Photo: Wikicommons

Scopolamine, also known as burundanga, is a chemical substance made from the scopolia plant. The plant is most commonly found near Bogotá, but also in the provinces of Magdalena and Atlántico. In the early 20th century, women were given the drug during childbirth to evoke a state of calm and drowsiness. Doctors noted that women in this state would often answer questions sincerely and openly, which led to the pursual of scopolamine as a potential truth serum. This possibility was eventually written off due to the intense side-effects.

The use of scopolamine as a truth serum has become one of its most publicised descriptors. In reality, if you have ever sought treatment for seasickness, you may have already tried scopolamine: the drug is commonly used to treat motion sickness and nausea.

While the plant is easy to find in parts of Colombia, processing it is expensive and many cases are misattributed to scopolamine, resulting instead from the cheaper benzodiazepine family of drugs that includes xanax and valium. A study by the Colombian Neurological Association (ACN) on 860 patients who had been admitted for scopolamine actually found that around 43.7% of them had benzos in their system. Only in 12.5% of cases was scopolamine detected.

Why is it dangerous?

Dr Joe Alexander, MD, PhD, FACC, told us that, “Put into a drink, scopolamine can cause a range of acute psychoses including: hallucinations, disorientation, and paranoia.” The doctor who specialises in cardiovascular dynamics is Senior Medical Director at a global pharmaceutical company and explained it can also cause nervous system disorders such as headaches, amnesia, coordination abnormalities, speech disorder, disturbance in attention and restlessness.

In severe cases, these drugs can kill you. For example, last year high doses of a benzodiazepine were found in the bloodstream of Fabián Herrera after he disappeared from Bogotá’s zona rosa party zone. Article continues below the box

What to do if you are affected by scopolamine

Get emergency help immediately

At the very least see a doctor and if the symptoms are severe, go to the hospital. If the drug is still in your system, it will be important for the doctor to understand what you were given and how strong the dosage so that they can treat you.

The US Embassy in Colombia told us that “The health and safety of the victim is our first priority. Victims should first get to a safe place, seek immediate medical attention, and report the incident to the Colombian police.”

Report it

The website which is usually used to report crimes in Colombia does not function with foreign ID numbers. Therefore, if you are an expat or traveller it is necessary to visit the Unidades de Reacción Inmediata (immediate care centers located throughout Bogota) to obtain a report. This report is essential for obtaining new documents or claiming insurance on any taken items.

Back to the US Embassy who explained that US citizens should also contact the Embassy to report the incident: consular officers are available for emergency assistance 24-7. “With the victim’s permission, we can contact local authorities on their behalf and encourage Colombian authorities to fully investigate and prosecute.”

 

More common are stories like Dave’s. The 26-year-old’s drink was spiked in February. “The trouble started when I left a club in the early hours of the morning and parted ways with my friends,” he told me. An unfamiliar man asked him for a cigarette and, in his words, “A few minutes after crossing paths with this person I realised something wasn’t right.”
“I woke up the next morning in my apartment feeling like I had had a massive night of partying and then some. Severe dehydration, nausea, head/body aches, dizziness, loss of appetite and chills.”

Mythbusting

Is it as common as people make out?
Whilst the State Department states that “unofficial estimates put the number of annual scopolamine incidents in Colombia at approximately 50,000,” the short life span of scopolamine in the body (around 12 hours) makes it difficult to gather statistics on the frequency and quantity of incidents. However, according to ACN, up to 20% of hospital admissions for poisoning in Bogotá are due to the drug.

Can I really get drugged by picking up someone’s business card?
A common rumour is that scopolamine can be laced on leaflets or business cards, which will then enter the victim’s body through the skin. In fact, ACN studies have shown that in 75% of cases, the drug was administered by a stranger who mixed it into their drink. Dr Alexander concurs: “If someone were to take tablets and pulverise them into a powder and blow it into your face, or if someone dipped a business card into a powdered or liquid preparation, I doubt that it would have much of an effect.”

Will it turn me into a compliant zombie?
The short answer is that this is unlikely. As Dr Alexander tells us, “There is a very long history of individuals – even law enforcement agencies – experimenting with the use of scopolamine as a kind of ‘truth serum.’ However, it was proven to be ineffective for getting reliable information. Nor does it cause people to follow suggestions or fall into a “zombie-like” state.”

Related: New crime measures in Bogotá after spike in robberies

In addition, it is rare that the drug is used for sexual crimes. The most common victims are young, foreign men who are perceived by the perpetrators to be wealthy. For example according to the ACN study, in Bucaramanga, 70% of victims were males between the age of 30 and 45 and in 94% of cases, the motive was robbery; only in 2% of cases was the motive to sexually assault the victim. Contrary to popular opinion, the ingestion of alcohol did not seem to make a difference to the way the effects manifested themselves as in many cases, alcohol was not detected at all.

Be safe

Remember that a lot of these types of attacks happen to people on nights out, and that some common sense can help you to avoid trouble:

  • Don’t leave your drink unattended
  • Be careful accepting drinks or cigarettes from strangers
  • Watch out for your friends, if possible share a ride home or check in with each other at the end of a night
  • Avoid hanging out on the street alone at night and don’t walk home alone
  • Be careful about inviting strangers to your house

Dave says, “Don’t talk on the phone in a foreign language (especially English) at night in the streets of Bogotá. I believe this is how I may have been targeted.”


Róisín Mulligan

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