Like many narcotics, it has a variety of names: it’s known in South America as scopolamine, in Britain as hyocine, and commercially it goes by the trade name of Scopoderm. An article in The Toronto Star printed last year called it "the most dangerous drug in the world," highlighting its hypnotic and even zombifying effects (mental, not physical) on those it's been administered to. And like any drug that finds itself in the centre of a moral panic or lurid news report, it has an ominous nickname: “Devil’s breath,” so popularized by a 2008 Vice documentary about the substance.
Regardless of however devilish this drug may or may not subjectively be, it has a lengthy history, riddled with twists and turns—some sordid, some quite legitimate. So before it balloons into the next krokodil (a word you should never, ever run an image search on), let’s get the facts straight.
7 It’s Been Around For A While
Scopolamine as we know it came into existence in 1880, isolated by German chemist Albert Ladenburg from plants in the Solanaceae family—more widely known as nightshades. While it might seem insane to derive medicine from a family of plants known for their poisonous berries, keep in mind that the 19th century was a hotbed for novel and, yes, very risky medical innovations. Just over 30 years earlier, Charlotte Winslow, Jeremiah Curtis and Benjamin A. Perkins of Bangor, Maine marketed “Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrups,” a formula intended to calm down infants and which contained, among other chemicals, morphine.
Unlike the Soothing Syrups, which were essentially Opioids 4 Kidz, scopolamine is still used in modern medicine to treat nausea, vomiting and sea sickness, with the Undersea Biomedical Research Journal noting its idealness for scuba divers. In fact, there’s a good chance some of you reading this have already used its transdermal patch form, Scopoderm, to counteract motion sickness in cars or on boats.
6 It Has Been Used Criminally
This fact is not at all surprising—pretty much every drug has been used illicitly at some point in its existence—but the methods in which criminals have put scopolamine to use are genuinely frightening. It has been used as a substitute for Rohypnol in cases of drug facilitated sexual assaults, and robbers have utilized it as a means of keeping their victims doped up while they’re relinquished of their possessions. A 2012 report by the U.S. State Department described the substance as being able to “render a victim unconscious for 24 hours or more.” They also noted that scopolamine use in Colombia accounted for approximately 50,000 incidents annually.
5 It Was Used During Childbirth
If you were born in the 1960s, it’s likely that doctors had your mother under the influence of scopolamine during labour. As explained in an entry on MedicineNet, scopolamine was used in conjunction with morphine to induce a “twilight sleep” in mothers who were in the process of giving birth. Translated from the delightful German term Dämmerschlaf, twilight sleep is a state wherein a person remains conscious while dulled to the sensation of pain, and can in fact have an amnesiac effect on memories of pain as well.
The method is not in use today for both medical and moral reasons and hasn’t been sanctioned by medical professionals since at least the early 1970s. In fact, criticisms of the procedure were recorded as early as 1915 in a feature in The New York Times: a mother described feeling emotionally disconnected from the birth of her child because she forgot the entire experience while in twilight sleep, and obstetrics writer Hanna Ver Beck noted that it had a depressive effect on many newborns. While modern epidurals do numb pain, they lack the amnesiac effects of scopolamine-induced twilight sleep.
4 NASA Is Using It
Zero gravity, the vastness of space and motion sickness tend to go hand-in-hand-in-hand, so it’s not at all surprising that NASA is coming up with a new method of administering scopolamine to nauseous astronauts. In the fall of 2012, space and space travel periodical SpaceRef reported that NASA had forged a partnership with the Irvine-based company Epiomed Therapeutics, Inc. in order to come up with a new scopolamine nasal spray called INSCOP (INtransasal SCOPolamine).
While astronauts had previously ingested motion sickness medication orally, scopolamine is faster-acting when taken nasally. This advancement could theoretically help to settle and reorient them more quickly when the situation demands it. Lakshmi Putcha of the Johnson Space Center said that in time INSCOP could also be used by the Department of Defense as well as the average traveller.
3 It Was Once A Truth Serum
Like sodium thiopental, scopolamine has been used in the past to obtain information and confessions from those being interrogated. Researcher Robert House wrote about the potential criminological uses of the drug in a 1922 paper for the Texas State Journal of Medicine, detailing how he administered it to two prisoners awaiting trial: under the influence of scopolamine, both men denied being guilty of the accusations leveled against them, and in court the jury gave both of them not guilty verdicts. House saw these results as legitimizing scopolamine’s effectiveness.
According to the Czech publication iDNES, Czechoslovakian secret police had used it on alleged anti-state conspirators. State security began researching scopolamine’s practical uses not long into the Second World War, and tried to find covert uses for other narcotics as well, such as attempting to work poison into the paint on the walls of rooms where state enemies would be. Its use as a truth serum was not very effective, however, with a CIA report drafted in 1993 noting negative side effects such as hallucinations, rapid heartbeat and dry mouth impeding the usefulness of any extracted confessions.
2 It Can Help With Depression
Researchers have extensively looked into scopolamine’s effectiveness in treating that fickle condition, depression, specifically as an intravenous and oral drug. In an article published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, a quartet of researchers noted scopolamine’s rapid and high-impact antidepressant effects when administered via IV. It has also shown to significantly curb anxiety in those suffering from bipolar depression, as noted in a 2011 piece for Bipolar Disorders. Additional studies have shown it to be incredibly effective on female patients in particular. A 2012 article for the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry reported that taken orally, and combined with citalopram, scopolamine helped to significantly decrease the intensity of depression in subjects suffering from major depressive disorder.
1 It Has Its Urban Legends
Scopolamine’s use as a recreational drug is fairly new, but as with any new street drug it has had its major and legitimately worrying scares and concerns. But of course, it has also been made the subject of chain emails and widely shared Facebook statuses, one of the most common being a victim dermally ingesting scopolamine through a tainted business card handed to them by a soon-to-be robber. The helpful fact-checkers at urban legend debunking site Snopes looked into the various anecdotes and wrote that not only were the accounts poorly sourced and almost impossible to verify, but that a substance such as scopolamine cannot be taken so quickly and effectively through just a brief touch. So while it’s always wise to keep an eye on your food and drink at a crowded restaurant or bar, you shouldn’t worry that the merest touch will leave you zombified.
Unless, of course, they suggest you try out an awesome motion sickness patch.