What would it take to be considered the world's scariest drug? A documentary that has gone viral in two days has a suggestion –– it’s one that criminals use to erase your memory and renders you incapable of exercising your free will.
The drug, called scopolamine, also known as ‘The Devil’s Breath,' is derived from a particular type of tree common in Colombia called the Borrachero tree.
The word "borrachero," which roughly translates to "get-you-drunk," grows wild in Bogota,Colombia.
This tree which naturally produces scopolamine is so famous in the countryside that mothers warn their children not to fall asleep below its cunningly beautiful yellow and white flowers.
"We probably should put some sort of fence up," jokes biologist Gustavo Morales at Bogota's botanical gardens to Reuters, eyeing children playing with borrachero seeds everywhere. The pollen alone is said to conjure up strange dreams.
And when extracted and made into a colorless, odorless and tasteless powder, scopolamine does more than induce strange dreams. Quickly dissolved in liquids, criminals slip the powder into drinks or sprinkle it on food. Reuters states that victims become so docile that they have been known to help thieves rob their homes and empty their bank accounts. Women have been drugged repeatedly over days and gang-raped or rented out as prostitutes.
It was stories like these that initially made VICE News Correspondent Ryan Duffy pretty excited to travel to Bogota, Colombia.
"I had only a vague understanding of [scopolamine], but the idea of a substance that renders a person incapable of exercising free-will seemed liked a recipe for hilarity and the YouTube hall of fame," Duffy writes.
VICE Correspondent Ryan Duffy in Bogota, Colombia narrating the documentary "Colombian Devil's Breath."
Besides thinking of ways of how he could pull pranks on his friends when he returned, "the original plan was for me to sample the drug myself to really get an idea of the effect it had on folks," he said.
That quickly changed.
"By the time I arrived a few days later, things had changed dramatically," he writes. "All elements of humor and novelty were rapidly stripped away during my first few days in town."
Duffy, who initially couldn't wait to go to Colombia says by the time he and his team were wrapping things up and preparing to leave the country, couldn’t wait to get as far away as possible "from Colombia and that drug," he said.
"After meeting only a couple people with firsthand experience, the story took a far darker turn than we ever could have imagined, and the Scopolamine pranks I had originally imagined pulling on my friends seemed beyond naive and absurd," he added.
Instead, he came away with a new objective: "This story, and the people who tell it, truly deserve to be heard."
World's Scariest Drug
A story cannot be heard without a teller. And since they valued the people and the story enough to tell it, the 35 minute exclusive documentary, "World's Scariest Drug" has already racked up 330,328 views since Vice News uploaded it to YouTube two days ago on May 11.
As these words are being written, at 8pm Sunday evening, there are (994)... (995) ... (996) comments and counting that include:
"I will never go to Colombia," says jumts18, a YouTube viewer.
"This video has to be a joke," says another.
After some research, another wrote: "I read somewhere that they use this drug for motion sickness around the world. What the fuck."
Andreas Nilsson wears a transdermal patch behind the ear that contains scopolamine, a substance that prevents sea sickness.
Far from being a joke,the late Dr. Stephen M. Pittel, who was a nationally known forensic psychologist and pioneer of research on the drug culture of San Francisco, wrote that "reports of date-rapes, thefts, kidnapping and other crimes in the U.S. and Canada have been attributed to Burundanga - a potent form of scopalamine that has been used for decades in Columbia in native rituals, as a weapon and by criminals who prey on tourists."
He said The Wall Street Journal reported in 1995 that the use of Burandanga was increasing rapidly as the favored method of assault by immigrant Columbian criminal gangs in the U.S. who now also use it as a major form of currency.
"In one common scenario, a person will be offered a soda or drink laced with the substance," the article stated. "The next thing the person remembers is waking up miles away, extremely groggy and with no memory of what happened. People soon discover that they have handed over jewelry, money, car keys, and sometimes have even made multiple bank withdrawals for the benefit of their assailants."
"This happened to my great aunt, a woman in her late 60's in Medellin," says Mel from Naples, Fl, on the Daily Mail web site. "Someone drugged her by blowing [the powder] in her face and took her to the bank where she emptied her bank account willingly for her assailant," he writes. "When she came out it she couldn't remember who the person was."
That may be why in more recent years, the U.S. State Department issued a warning telling travelers to beware of "criminals in Colombia using disabling drugs to temporarily incapacitate tourists and others."
In Bogata and Cali, Burundanga is given to unsuspecting visitors in chewing gum, chocolate, drinks or dusted on pieces of paper. Even small doses of the drug are reported to cause "submissive" behavior, while larger doses apparently cause almost instantaneous unconsciousness, followed by complete anterograde amnesia (inability to recall recent events)
screenshot via YouTube
Scopolamine in the powder form is often blown into faces of victims or added to drinks shown in the documentary "Colombian Devil's Breath."
And why Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada advises against all travel to most rural areas of Colombia. The Government of Canada warns that if traveling to Colombia to avoid "going to bars alone. Never leave your drink or food unattended.
There have been numerous incidents of drugs being used (including scopolamine) to incapacitate travelers in order to rob them. Scopolamine can be administered through aerosols, cigarettes, gum, or in powder form. Typically, travelers are approached by someone asking for directions; the drug is concealed in a piece of paper and is blown into the victim's face. Exercise extreme caution, as scopolamine can cause prolonged unconsciousness and serious medical problems."
But still some people think the documentary and warnings such as these show a prejudice towards Colombia and Colombians. "It's so sad that people just sees us Colombians as drug dealers and drug consumer [sic] and to say its a fucked up country is very offensive," Youtube user rt987 said Sunday. "Colombia has very good people and off [sic] course we have problems as every other country. and we are looking forward to have them solved, making people scared of Colombia i [sic] think is pathetic, Colombia is a great place to live, and to visit."
But it's not just the United States or Canada issuing warnings. On its website, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Colombia warns all those interested in "traveling to Colombia to be careful with scopolamine, commonly called burundanga that when mixed with a drink, a cigarette or inhaled (for example on paper in the guise of asking for directions), will lose it absolutely." The drug is used for robberies and kidnappings in local pubs.
As the documentary states, Colombia has one of the highest kidnapping rates in the world.
It’s like they’re a child
Part of Duffy traveling to Colombia, was to interview those who deal the drug and those who have fallen victim to it.
The animated Demencia Black falls in the former category.
As the Daily Mail reports, Black, a drug dealer in the capital of Bogota, says that one gram of Scopolamine is similar to a gram of cocaine, but later called it "worse than anthrax."
screengrab via YouTube
Demencia Black, a drug dealer in the capital of Bogota, who is featured in the documentary, playing a bamboo looking instrument.
Black also said what makes the drug so frightening is its simplicity in administration.
Black told Vice that criminals can blow scopolamine in the face of an unsuspecting victim, and within minutes, that person is under the drug’s effect.
A 21 year old prostitute that you'll meet in the documentary uses scopolamine on her clients to rob them. Reuters reported one such incident involving three young Bogota women who preyed on men by smearing the drug on their breasts and luring their victims to take a lick.
screengrab via YouTube
Jessica, a 21 year old prostitute in the capital of Bogota, who is featured in the documentary.
Now under the influence, the men readily gave up their bank access codes. The breast-temptress thieves then held them hostage for days while draining their accounts.
"You can guide them wherever you want," he explains matter of factly. "It’s like they’re a child."
The drug, he said, turns people into complete zombies and blocks memories from forming. So even after the drug wears off, victims have no recollection as to what happened.
Your brain on scopolamine
So how does this happen? How can a drug leave a person not only with amnesia, but with the inability to exercise free will.
Memories are facilitated through a brain chemical called acetylcholine. When Scopolamine comes onboard it competes with acetylcholine, wins the competition and blocks the acetylcholine receptor in the brain, so that the lock and key fit isn't made. This lock and key fit -- lock (acetylcholine receptor) fit with the key (brain chemical acetylcholine) -- is important in how you make memories.
What we remember goes through three key stages: the initial making of the memory (encoding), creation of long-term memories (storage/consolidation) and recall (retrieval).
Scopolamine blocks the first stage, memory encoding, which takes place in the hippocampus – an area critical for memory. In other words, the information never gets stored in the first place.
So you can understand why scopolamine is so popular with criminals such as rapists and robbers. But what makes it popular for criminals, makes it troubling for police. According to Reuters, since scopolamine completely blocks the formation of memories, unlike most date-rape drugs used in the United States and elsewhere, it is usually impossible for victims to ever identify their aggressors.
"When a patient (of U.S. date-rape drugs) is under hypnosis, he or she usually recalls what happened. But with scopolamine, this isn't possible because the memory was never recorded," said Dr. Camilo Uribe, the world's leading expert on the drug.
An inability to react to external aggression (submissive behavior), probably associated with another part of the brain called the amygdala.
By Original uploader of gif version was RobinH at en.wikibooks [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fd
Diagram showing locations of several important parts of the human brain, as viewed from the front.
In a post called "The amygdala--our inner nut," Jean Browman explains
The amygdala is one of the two almond-shaped (the name comes from the Greek word for almond) groups of nuclei that are responsible for our fight-or-flight response. (Actually we have two, one on each side of the brain.) One of the things amygdalae do is shut down the thinking part of our brain so we can take immediate action in an emergency. In some cases this can save our lives.
Or as you will learn in the documentary, take our lives.
As Wired UK reported last year, "we can only speculate that the criminal underworld has unwittingly stumbled upon one of the greatest discoveries of 21st-century neuroscience."
Except, the discovery might not be so unwitting, after all. Before the criminals used scopolamine, scopolamine was used on the criminals.
Scopolamine and "twilight sleep"
At the beginning of the twentieth century, physicians began to use scopolamine, along with morphine and chloroform, to induce to induce a state of ‘twilight sleep’ during childbirth. While under the influence of the drugs, the women suffered less from labor pains, but experienced somnolence, drowsiness, disorientation, hallucinations and amnesia. Mothers woke up after giving birth, not remembering what happened.
the wonders of birth
But in 1916 the rural Texan obstetrician Robert House noticed the drug had another unusual effect: that although the new moms were unable to remember what happened during delivery, they were nonetheless able to answer questions accurately and often volunteered exceedingly candid remarks.
House had asked a patient’s husband for the scales to weigh the newborn. When the man could not find them his wife, still in a semi-conscious limbo, said "They are in the kitchen on a nail behind the picture."
House concluded that "without exception, the patient always replied with the truth. The uniqueness of the results obtained from a large number of cases examined was sufficient to prove to me that I could make anyone tell the truth on any question."
Enter the CIA
Because of the residual effects in newborns, the technique was abandoned in the mid 60's. But before it was abandoned in the 1960s, it caught the eye of the CIA.
According to the Central Intelligence Agency website, "In 1922 it occurred to House that a similar technique might be employed in the interrogation of suspected criminals." and he arranged to interview under scopolamine two convicts from the Dallas county jail who volunteered as test subjects to demonstrate their innocence. To authorities, however, their guilt " seemed clearly confirmed," the article states.
Under the drug, both men denied the charges on which they were held; and both, upon trial, were found not guilty. One of the prisoners afterwards confirmed House’s hypothesis: "After I had regained consciousness I began to realize that at times during the experiment I had a desire to answer any question that I could hear, and it seemed that when a question was asked my mind would center upon the true facts of the answer and I would speak voluntarily, without any strength of will to manufacture an answer.’
The CIA says: Enthusiastic at this success, House concluded that a patient under the influence of scopolamine "cannot create a lie" Because he said the drug ‘will depress the cerebrum to such a degree as to destroy the power of reasoning’. ... there is no power to think or reason."
His experiment and this conclusion attracted wide attention, and the idea of a "truth" drug was thus launched upon the public consciousness.
Scopolamine in Interrogation: "Truth Serum"
The phrase "truth serum" is believed to have appeared first in a news report of House's experiment in the Los Angeles Record, sometime in 1922.
But in time, what was found with infants when they induced twilight sleep during children, was also found with criminals during interrogations: the residual effects out weighed the benefits. According to the CIA:
Because of a number of undesirable side effects, scopolamine was shortly disqualified as a "truth" drug. Among the most disabling of the side effects are hallucinations, disturbed perception, somnolence, and physiological phenomena such as headache, rapid heart, and blurred vision, which distract the subject from the central purpose of the interview.
Furthermore, the physical action is long, far outlasting the psychological effects.
The CIA writes that only a handful of cases in which scopolamine was used for police interrogation came to public notice, though there is evidence suggesting that some police forces may have used it extensively.
"One police writer claims that the threat of scopolamine interrogation has been effective in extracting confessions from criminal suspects, who are told they will first be rendered unconscious by chloral hydrate placed covertly in their coffee or drinking water."
Placed covertly in their coffee or drinking water. Sound familiar?
Why is the drug such a rampant problem in Colombia?
According to Reuters, some analysts blame it on a culture of crime in the Andean nation, home to the world's largest kidnapping and cocaine industries, not to mention Latin America's longest-running guerrilla war. But according the young prostitute has another idea: She says everything about using scopolamine is about hurting people.
A 21-year-old prostitute in Bogota, Colombia explaining the effects of scopolamine in the documentary "Colombian Devil's Breath."
Pure and cheap, scopolamine is that country's way, at least in part, she says, of hurting others who themselves have been hurt. Her cocky bravado melts away, just for a moment during the video, when she describes that this is the only way she knows how to live.
She describes that she learned this behavior while living on the streets in order to survive her childhood. In an unguarded and searing moment, the camera pans the room and shows the viewer shots of teddy bears that surround her as she explains further that having the life that she has and being hurt in the past, makes her feel like she is worthless.
A person who does not hold value within themselves, because they've never experienced someone of worth holding value for them, so that they internalize they themselves are worthy of care, will reflect that in not holding value for others. She confirms this when she says that since her life doesn't matter it doesn't matter what she does.
As she wipes tears away and before the bravado returns, she reflects, that she never wanted or imagined having a life doing what she does. "I never imagined it," she says.
What do you think?
After you've viewed the video, we would like to know what your take is on this drug. What did you experience or feel while watching the documentary. Let us know below in the comments!