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Documentary examines "World's Scariest Drug"

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From the beautiful plants in the Solanaceae (or nightshade) family comes the base for the drug burundanga (as it's called in Colombia) or scopolamine. On its own, the seed of the nightshade plant causes hallucinations that may be mildly pleasant for the user. However, once it is synthesized into scopolamine, the experience is terrifying and may even lead to death (usually via a heart attack).

There are many "scary" drugs out on the streets and in pharmacies all around the world. Abuse and addiction are common problems in the US today. But scopolamine makes these drugs look like aspirin in comparison. What exactly makes it so terrifying? Even a casual whiff of this potent concoction can cause the user/victim to lose his/her sense of free will.

In 2008, VICE correspondent Ryan Duffy was sent down to Bogotá, Colombia to do some research on this mysterious drug, often referred to as, "Devil's Breath." After completing his documentary, which may be viewed to the left of this article, Duffy wrote,

When VICE initially asked me to go down to Colombia to dig into this scopolamine story, I was pretty excited. I had only a vague understanding of the drug, 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. I even spent a little time brainstorming the various ways I could transport some of it back to the states and had a pretty good list going of different ways to utilize it on my buddies. The original plan was for me to sample the drug myself to really get an idea of the effect it had on folks. The producer and camera man had flown down to Bogotá ahead of me to confirm some meetings and start laying down the groundwork. By the time I arrived a few days later, things had changed dramatically. Their first few days in the country had apparently been such a harrowing montage of freaked-out dealers and unimaginable horror stories about scopolamine that we decided I was absolutely not going to be doing the drug. All elements of humor and novelty were rapidly stripped away during my first few days in town. 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. By the time we were wrapping things up and preparing to leave the country, I couldn’t wait to get as far away from Colombia and that drug as possible. Apologies for a fleeting moment of sincerity, but looking back, I’m pretty proud of the work we did down there. This story, and the people who tell it, truly deserve to be heard.

Fortunately for the United States, the majority of burundanga use/misuse seems to be limited to Colombia and two or three other countries in South America...so far. However, scopolamine has a long history of medical use in the US. First isolated by German scientist Albert Ladenburg in 1880, scopolamine has been used in several compounds that treat nausea after surgery, seasickness (which has made it popular with SCUBA divers), Irritable Bowel Syndrome and several other gastrointestinal maladies. Synthesis of scopolamine has yielded common over-the-counter drugs such as diphenhydramine and doxylamine, as well as hospital-grade pethidine, more commonly known as Demerol.

Sadly, burundanga is widely misused in Colombia, where the socioeconomic climate is always turbulent and the threat of war is an everyday occurrence. Criminals and prostitutes appear to be the most common perpetrators to use Devil's Breath. In Duffy's documentary, he mentions that burundanga and sex seem to go hand-in-hand, with robberies, rapes, beatings and even deaths occurring regularly following burundanga use. Those who survived to tell their stories, as well as those who were brave enough to talk on camera about using the drug to hurt someone else, have clearly been traumatized for life. One man who was robbed had still not recovered his short-term memory and the friend of a drug dealer had been in, "a 17-year trip," constantly hiding his face with his hand. There's no way to know what this man sees on a daily basis, but according to the dealer, it is far from reality. Other stories were of heartbreaking fatalities, as even a small amount given to the "wrong" person (someone who is already ill, the elderly or the very young) can cause death. What shook survivors up the most was the fact that they appeared to have willingly ransacked their own homes, emptied out their own bank accounts and handed over their personal information without any coercion at all.

Duffy states that it was common with the indigenous people of Colombia for the wives and mistresses of deceased chiefs to be given burundanga. They would then be told to jump into the grave with the departed and willingly be buried alive. Obviously, the implications of the misuse of scopalomine go well beyond a small town in Colombia. It has quite a history of ethical and unethical use in recorded history and surely existed even before that. While there have been FALSE reports of scoplamine use on business cards in the United States, the drug does have a cult fan base here. It has been used as a date-rape drug (it is more useful than Rohipnol because the person doesn't appear drunk or in a stupor) and there are even reports of government organizations using it as a "truth serum."

While there is already too much to be vigilant about in this world, education about things like scopalomine is essential to the prevention of its use and misuse. Perhaps it will never make a huge impact in the United States. However, if it ever does, being informed about it could mean the difference between living and dying - on many levels.

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