November 20th, 2023
In the vast world of narcotics, few drugs carry a reputation as foreboding as “Devil’s Breath”, known scientifically as scopolamine. With a nickname as ominous as its reported effects, this substance has woven its narrative into urban legends, cautionary tales and nightmarish tabloid reports of mind control and induced “zombie-like” states.
But while all of this may sell newspapers, is there any truth behind the horror stories?
We will strip away the layers of mystique and fear, understanding that Devil’s Breath is not just a subject of chilling tales but a tangible, dangerous substance that has real-world implications.
What is Devil’s Breath?
Scopolamine is derived from the seeds of the Borrachero tree, primarily found in South America. In small doses, it has some legitimate medical applications, such as treating nausea and motion sickness.
It is thought that the indigenous peoples of South America once took it for its hallucinogenic properties, and it was wielded by shamans for various rites and ceremonies. In modern times, however, it has gained notoriety for far more sinister reasons.
While the powdered form is tasteless and odourless, Scopolamine is a potent drug that can disorient and incapacitate users and lead to frightening hallucinations. This can make it a discreet tool for malevolent purposes, particularly as it can erase memory, make users highly impressionable and even paralyse them physically.
In South America, particularly Colombia, where it is known as burundanga, there are countless reports of users being coerced into carrying out criminal acts after being spiked with the drug. Inadvertently under the “mind control” effects of the drug, these victims have been raped, convinced to commit violent crimes, emptied their bank accounts and even had their organs stolen.
To learn more about burundanga and how it is reportedly used for crime, click the image below:
Devil’s Breath as a recreational drug
While much of the focus on Devil’s Breath centres around its potential use in criminal acts, Scopolamine may also be used by some people as a recreational drug.
Users may seek the disorienting, dream-like state it can induce, mistakenly equating its effects with those of more mainstream hallucinogens like LSD. This is a dangerous misconception as Scopolamine’s hallucinations tend to be far more disturbing and disjointed, often manifesting as nightmarish visions or confusing scenarios that blur the line between reality and illusion.
Alternatively, as is thought to be the case with nine backpackers who overdosed on Scopolamine in Australia, it may also be taken by mistake due to its close resemblance to cocaine.
The recreational use of Devil’s Breath is fraught with peril for several reasons. Firstly, the correct dosage is notoriously hard to pin down, and even a slight miscalculation can lead to an overdose. This can result in severe health complications like respiratory failure, acute psychosis and even death. One 1995 Wall Street Journal article reported that almost half of all emergency room admissions in Bogota’s capital were due to burundanga poisoning.
Another risk is the drug’s amnesiac properties, meaning that recreational users may not recall their actions while under the influence. This can lead to dangerous situations, especially if they are in unfamiliar environments or surrounded by people with malicious intent.
Lastly, continuous use can result in dependence. While not as physically addictive as some other substances, psychological addiction can be potent, with users chasing the hallucinogenic effects and risking increased exposure to the drug’s dangerous side effects.
The science behind the effects
To demystify the workings of Scopolamine, we must delve into neuroscience. When introduced to the body, Scopolamine interferes with the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which plays a pivotal role in learning and memory. When the action of acetylcholine is blocked, the hippocampus, a brain region pivotal to memory consolidation, is unable to consolidate short-term memories into long-term ones. It is this mechanism that induces amnesia, leading to significant memory gaps.
While Scopolamine doesn’t necessarily enable the perpetrator to control the victim’s mind like a puppet master, the induced state of confusion and compliance can make the victim more susceptible to suggestion. This vulnerability, coupled with memory loss, creates a cocktail of conditions ripe for exploitation, date rape and violence.
Recognising and addressing the danger
Given its reputation, it is paramount to recognise the signs of Scopolamine intoxication in yourself and others, particularly if you are travelling somewhere where the drug is found. Symptoms may include dry mouth, difficulty speaking, lethargy, hallucinations, rapid heartbeat and disorientation. If someone suspects they have been drugged, seeking immediate medical attention is crucial. Hospitals are equipped to handle such situations, and prompt care can mitigate potential risks.
It is worth pointing out, however, that there is some scepticism about Scopolamine horror stories. Following one tabloid story about dozens of victims being spiked and robbed in Paris, Val Curran, professor of pharmacology at UCL’s Clinical Pharmacology Unit said:
Part of the confusion is that Scopolamine only remains in the system for around twelve hours, meaning that when potential victims wake up, all traces may already be gone. However, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) has never reported Scopolamine being used for crime in Europe.
Other experts question the widely reported spiking method of blowing Scopolamine powder into an unwitting victim’s face. It is more likely that food, drinks and even cigarettes are spiked with the perpetrator waiting close by for the effects to kick in.
Nevertheless, the U.S. State Department reports unofficial estimates of 50,000 Scopolamine incidents a year in Colombia, and the embassy published preventative guidelines for U.S. citizens visiting South America:
- Avoid going to nightclubs and bars on your own
- Never leave your food or drink unattended
- Never accept food or drink from strangers
- Never leave restaurants, bars or clubs with strangers
This is all good advice, not just for those worried about Devil’s Breath but for anybody going on a night out, particularly in unfamiliar surroundings.
With its harrowing effects and the myths surrounding Devil’s Breath, it has rightfully earned its ominous reputation. While its very name evokes images of dark sorcery and malevolent intent, the science behind it is both fascinating and deeply unsettling. The combination of profound amnesia, suggestibility and the erasure of one’s will makes it a drug to be avoided at all times. However, as with all substances of abuse, understanding is crucial. Dispelling myths while respecting the very real dangers is the first step to ensuring individuals are adequately informed.
For those who find themselves ensnared in the grasp of drug addiction, be it from Scopolamine or any other substance, there is hope. Organisations like UKAT provide comprehensive drug detox and rehab services designed to meet the unique needs of each individual. Our expert teams are well-versed in tackling the challenges of addiction, offering hope and guiding individuals on their journey to recovery. Contact us today to find out more.
(Click here to see works cited)
- Babbe, Steven, and Normand Bouchard. “Scopolamine: The Realities of Devil’s Breath in Colombia – Update 2023.” Medellin Guru, 2023, https://medellinguru.com/scopolamine/. Accessed 25 October 2023.
- Drugs.com. “Devil’s Breath: Urban Legend or the World’s Most Scary Drug?” Drugs.com, 2021, https://www.drugs.com/illicit/devils-breath.html. Accessed 25 October 2023.
- McPhee, Sam. “Zombie drug wreaking havoc in South America hits Australia: Mystery powder that hospitalised nine backpackers is called ‘Devil’s Breath.’” Daily Mail, 5 January 2018, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5237573/Substance-backpackers-Colombian-drug-Devils-Breath.html. Accessed 25 October 2023.
- Samuel, Henry, et al. “Three arrested in Paris over ‘devil’s breath’ drug that turns victims into willing ‘zombies.’” The Telegraph, 1 September 2015, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/11836976/Three-arrested-in-Paris-over-devils-breath-drug-that-turns-victims-into-willing-zombies.html. Accessed 25 October 2023.
- Saner, Emine. “’Devil’s breath’ aka scopolamine: can it really zombify you?” The Guardian, 2 September 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/society/shortcuts/2015/sep/02/devils-breath-aka-scopolamine-can-it-really-zombify-you. Accessed 25 October 2023.
- U.S. Embassy in Colombia. “SECURITY ALERT FOR U.S. CITIZENS: U.S. EMBASSY BOGOTA – INCREASE IN CRIMES INVOLVING USE OF SEDATIVES.” U.S. Embassy in Colombia, 9 March 2019, https://co.usembassy.gov/security-alert-for-u-s-citizens-u-s-embassy-bogota-increase-in-crimes-involving-use-of-sedatives/?_ga=2.14368372.2115925506.1698208060-1413103756.1698208054. Accessed 25 October 2023.