"One of the most enduring hoaxes you might hear in a backpacker hostel is that of the drug-soaked business card: someone hands you their card, and the drug is instantly absorbed by your skin. You fall into a zombie-like state, where you will do anything for your attacker, from empty out your bank account to pull a trigger on someone.
The drug is burandanga, or scopolamine, derived from nightshade plants, and there are countless stories about how criminals in Colombia and Ecuador use the drug, which is said to remove a person’s free will, to assault victims or rob them. It is also known as “devil’s breath” and has been described as “the most dangerous drug in the world”. It’s hard to know which are urban myths and which are genuine. The US’s Overseas Security Advisory Council warns travellers in Quito about the dangers of falling victim to a scopolamine attack, and refers to “unofficial estimates” – it doesn’t say where this figure is from – of 50,000 scopolamine incidents there every year.
Now, according to reports, the drug has been used on “dozens” of victims in Paris, and three people have been arrested. The Daily Telegraph suggests that two women had encouraged their victims to breathe in the drug, then got the victims to take them home where they stole money and jewellery.
“You get these scare stories and they have no toxicology, so nobody knows what it is,” says Val Curran, professor of pharmacology at UCL’s Clinical Pharmacology Unit. “The idea that it is scopolamine is a bit far-fetched, because it could be anything.”
Dr Les King, chemist and former forensic scientist, agrees. The idea that someone could become zombified after someone blows powder into their face “seems pretty unlikely for a start”. There is no evidence it is being used in Europe, he says. “The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction has never had any mention of scopolamine being used in this way.”
It would be hard to get hold of. “I think if you tried to order some scopolamine from a chemical company, they’d be reluctant to sell it to you,” says King. “It’s not a drug you can buy [on the street] in the way you might buy some other new psychoactive substance, some legal high, or whatever. It’s not available in that sense because it’s not a drug you would want to take for any pleasurable purpose.”
It is “horrible stuff”, says Curran. “When I used to give it to people [in experiments], they hated it – it makes your mouth really dry, it makes your pupils constrict. Certainly high doses would be completely incapacitating.” And does it remove free will? “It would completely zonk you out,” says Curran, “ but I don’t know about removing free will. It incapacitates you because you’d feel so drowsy, you wouldn’t remember what was going on. But you would do after huge doses of alcohol, or lots of other drugs like Valium or other benzodiazepine drugs.”
Scopolamine has marked amnesic effects, and is used in Alzheimer’s research. Mostly though, it is used at very low doses to treat motion sickness, usually though a transdermal patch.
It is one of those drugs with a rich backstory. It is said to be one of the first “truth serums”. In the early 20th century, it was administered by some doctors as a pain-relief drug – or rather a drug that led to the forgetting of pain – in childbirth until one obstetrician noticed how women who had been given it answered candidly to questions; he later wondered if it could be used when questioning people charged with crimes. It was used as evidence in some trials, but dubiously.
Then there are stories of it being used in Nazi Germany as an interrogation tool, and also in the middle ages by witches. “The degree to which any of this stuff is true is unknown,” says Curran. “There’s a lot of myth.”