First of all, they call it the “devil’s breath.” Imagine if some random person on the street could approach you and incapacitate your free will just by blowing powder in your face. That’s what one of Columbia’s most dangerous street drugs can do to you. Scopolamine is a chemical substance akin to a date rape drug, known for turning its victims into passive zombies. It is utilized often by criminals for mugging and robberies.
The scariest thing about the drug is what it does to the will of the victim. Free will becomes secondary as you are slowly lured by your attacker into complete submission. You become utterly as the mercy of their command. Wild stories abound of victims being made to empty their bank accounts and rob their houses, just by the will of suggestion.
For one thing, scopolamine is hard, almost impossible to detect to the naked eye. Though its powdered form is similar to cocaine, the “devil’s breath” is a tasteless, colorless, and odorless chemical. You can only notice it once it’s too late. Once ingested, the drug works its horror within seconds.
Scopolamine comes from the borrachero tree in Columbia, which is otherwise known there as the “get you drunk tree” because of its powerful effects. People, especially young children are advised by their parents not to fall asleep under it, because any exposure could be deadly. The most active ingredient of scopolamine, burundanga, is extracted from the seeds of the cacao savanero, an otherwise beautiful flower.
Once ground and powdered, the fatal drug can be sold on the streets for 30-40 pesos a gram. A standard dosage may be .33 mg, but 10 mg could be enough to send someone into a coma or possibly death. High doses have been compared to extremely high doses of alcohol and prescription drugs, such as Xanax or Valium.
What’s strange about scopolamine victims is how perfectly normal they will seem under the influence of the drug, while their mind is at the mercy of suggestion. According to one account, a woman under the influence led a man to her house and helped him ransack it. Another story featured a man waking up in an empty apartment. When he questioned the receptionist he told him that he had come in with a group of friends and willfully emptied all of his belongings into a van. Because of the perfectly alert, perfectly articulate nature victims display while under the influence, it is hard to tell they are drugged.
According to Columbian psychiatrists, the most common symptoms of exposure are confusion and amnesia. Scopolamine, when ingested, blocks a neurotransmitter essential to memory. It also affects the amygdala, which controls aggression and anxiety, explaining the passivity of most of its victims. The memory loss makes it almost impossible to identify suspects. Pretty scary, right? According to urban legend, the three main forms of ingestion are through inhalation, drinking, or simply touching substances coated with the deadly chemical.
A little creepy history, now. In ancient times, scopolamine was administered in death rituals. After a Columbian leader died, all their wives and mistress were talked, under the influence, into walking into their master’s grave. There, they were buried alive. During the 20th century, it was it was administered as a pain relief, and even utilized in research to treat Alzheimer’s, asthma (my childhood condition), and, in Ecuador, even Parkinson’s. During the 20s and 30s, scopolamine was even used by police as a truth serum. This later continued into the Cold War for CIA use in interrogations. Worse case scenario: Josef Mengele and the Nazis dabbled in the devil’s breath for experimentation purposes.
Some of scopolamine’s nefarious reputation has been debunked as urban legend. One thing confirmed: there’s no way you can ingest it just by touching a piece of paper. Neuroscientists have even disputed its ability to subjugate free will. What they say is that scopolamine has a selective effect on memory. Memory is most definitely affected, but planning and information manipulation are, for the most part, left unhindered. The victims are mostly passive and confused, rather than unable to resist commands from their attackers.
Either way, that makes it an extremely dangerous drug. Scopolamine is hell to endure, based on the simple fact that you are completely unaware, even sometimes active in the process of robbing your own bank account. Or house. And you won’t remember who did it to you. Even the U.S. Department has issued a warning to tourists: never accept food and beverages offered by strangers, or leave them unattended. Whether exaggerated by urban legend or not, (which it probably is) one thing remains true: the devil’s breath is something to fear.