‘The World’s Most Dangerous Drug’ Grows Everywhere in Romania
This article originally appeared on VICE Romania
I’ve always had a bad relationship with drugs. Pathetically, even smoking weed makes me ill. One time, after I smoked a joint, I ended up locking myself in a dark room, laying down in the foetal position and staring blankly at a copper kettle for hours.
Given my awkward relationship with drugs, it’s sort of odd that I started investigating the Datura bush. Perhaps you’ve heard of scopolamine – sometimes referred to as “the most dangerous drug in the world”; Well, that stuff is extracted from Datura seeds. The seeds are extremely potent and a quick skim of internet drug forums brings up a rake of terrifying bad trip accounts. There are literally thousands of stories from people who’ve completely lost their mind on only a few Datura seeds. Many can’t remember what they’ve done for days at a time and the stuff is so poisonous it can kill you. Some people have even used it to kill themselves.
But, Datura grows freely in Romania. It’s everywhere – from abandoned parking lots to people’s backyards. I even found a patch of it in downtown Bucharest, right next to the newly restored Cultural Institute. The guard that was taking care of the place told me he knew exactly what it was and what was capable of doing.
“I cut it, but the damn thing is so resilient. It can grow out of gravel,” he explained.
According to Iosif Gaboş-Grecu, a psychiatrist at the Târgu Mureş Psychiatry Clinic, ingesting Datura stramonium seeds can cause extreme hallucinations that last for days. He recalled one instance when a “clearly psychotic” kid was brought into the hospital because he had ingested a few seeds. Iosif said it was the first time he’d been confronted with anything so drastic.
“It’s a rather famous case,” the psychiatrist told me, while skimming some of his papers. “The child had been walking in the park with a friend and ate a fistful of seeds. Not long after that, he fell down in the street. He was brought to the hospital in critical condition. The poison in the plant can induce mental illness, hallucinations and perception disorders. The visual hallucinations are the most intense part. They’re terrifying. That boy couldn’t tell what was happening to him – he was seeing monsters, breathing heavily and seemed visibly agitated. People can’t control themselves when they’re in that state. They can easily become dangerous without being aware of it. I wouldn’t even be surprised if they killed someone. That kid almost lost his life,” he said.
Still, some people are taking the stuff recreationally. One young man I met named Alexander told me about his experience with Datura: “After taking it, you fall into a deep sleep, but when you wake up you’re still dreaming. I guess it can either be a dream or a nightmare. You can’t really tell whether or not you’re awake, you could easily jump in front of a truck,” explained Alexander.
“I was tripping for two days after taking the stuff. Trying to find my girlfriend in bushes that I thought were trains. For another 48 hours after that, I would eat anything shiny that I found – even sun cream. I’d be sitting at a table with my friends and I would just casually put body cream in my hand and eat it. In the end, it turned out that the guys who gave me the seeds did it to rob me. They took everything – my backpack, my sandals, everything,” he went on.
A friend of Alexander’s named Andrew disappeared for a few days after trying Datura. His parents found him completely dehydrated and convinced that he was shipwrecked on an island.
“He looked like a zombie. They had to rush him to intensive care,” Alexander told me. Strangely enough, he smiled and nodded when I asked if he’d give Datura another go. Luckily, most people who’ve had such extreme episodes get so scared they never try it again.
Datura bush growing beside office buildings
The plant is thought to have been brought to Europe from South America by “New World” explorers – together with plants like corn, tomatoes and potatoes (which Datura is actually related to). Historically, the plant has had many uses. The Aztecs used Datura inoxia during their initiation rites. Those that survived the hallucinations would either “return a man” or not return at all. Alexandru Şuţu, a famous 19th century Romanian psychiatrist, used it to calm his patients. Romanian writers would even use it as a sleeping aid.
“In one region of Romania, it’s called “bolundariţă” – which means ‘that which makes you insane,'” explained Professor Vasile Cristea, President of the Botanical Garden in Cluj-Napoca. These days a muscle relaxant called atropine is legally extracted from it.
“Atropine is used in eye medicine, because it enlarges your pupils. But it also contains alkaloids, which, if used incorrectly could lead to some very sad situations. It raises your heart rate, weakens your muscles, causes confusion, incoherence, hallucinations and anaemia. But in certain legal doses it’s a very useful sedative, an antispasmodic,” explained the professor.
Romanian psychiatrist Gabriel Cicu, however, doesn’t think we should be calling the scopolamine extracted from Datura “the most dangerous drug in the world”.
“That’s just American marketing,” he said, before pointing out that fans of this type of trip were an anomaly on the drug scene. “There are certain people looking for out-of-body experiences and enhanced states of consciousness. This sort of trip is more of a naturist hobby; about being one with the environment. It’s only really these types of people that are into datura. They’re modern hippies. It really isn’t that common.”
He also said that Datura is no different to regular drugs, when it comes to misuse: “People aren’t looking for a bad trip. Sure, Datura can cause that, but that’s not what people are after. Maybe it isn’t a great comparison, but Datura misuse is sort of like a heroin overdose: An exceptional situation where things spiral out of control because of irresponsibility. Forgive my exaggeration, but I think you could look at Datura like a sort of Romanian ayahuasca. To some, it might seem excessive, but not to those who take it. Sometimes things just go wrong,” he concluded.
Scopolamine is extracted from Datura, a bush that can be found all over Bucharest – from abandoned parking lots to people's backyards.
Devil’s Breath: Urban Legend or the World’s Most Scary Drug?
Next time someone tries to hand you a business card, should you think twice before grabbing it?
Some would say “yes”. There are stories circulating that a chemical known as “Devil’s Breath” is making its way around the world, being blown into faces and soaked into business cards to render unsuspecting tourists incapacitated. The result? A “zombie-like” state that leaves the victim with no ability to control their actions, leaving them at risk of having their bank accounts emptied, homes robbed, organs stolen, or raped by a street criminal. Are these sensationalized stories part of an urban legend or a factual crime scene?
Devil’s Breath is derived from the flower of the “borrachero” shrub, common in the South American country of Colombia.
- The seeds, when powdered and extracted via a chemical process, contain a chemical similar to scopolamine called “burandanga”. Borrachero has been used for hundreds of years by native South Americans in spiritual rituals.
- The compound is said to lead to hallucinations, frightening images, and a lack of free will. Amnesia can occur, leaving the victim powerless to recall events or identify perpetrators.
- According to a 1995 Wall Street Journal article, about half of all emergency room admissions in Bogota, Colombia were for burundanga poisoning. Scopolamine is also present in Jimson Weed (Datura stramonium), a plant found in most of the continental U.S.
And wouldn’t you know it — this street drug is available in prescription form, too. If you suffer from seasickness, maybe you’ve used scopolamine (Transderm Scop) on your last ocean adventure. The active ingredient is available in a 1 milligram transdermal patch worn behind your ear to help ward off motion sickness or postoperative nausea and vomiting. The medicine slowly absorbs through the skin from a specialized rate-controlling membrane found in the patch. It’s worn for three days before being replaced. The low dose and slow absorption helps to prevent severe side effects in most people. Scopolamine transdermal patch is not classified by the DEA as a controlled substance.
Controlled substance or not, there could be true illegal use of the drug. High doses or spiked drinks could cause issues. The State Department notes on their website that scopolamine can render a victim unconscious for 24 hours or more. In Colombia, where its use seems to be most widespread, “unofficial estimates” of scopolamine events are at roughly 50,000 per year. In large doses it can cause “respiratory failure and death”. However, these effects are due to oral administration in “liquid or powder form in foods and beverages”, not being blown into one’s face or absorbed via a piece of soaked paper. Not surprisingly, the majority of these Colombian incidents have occurred in night clubs and bars, reminiscent of the date-rape drug Rohypnol. However, some events in Colombia reportedly have an interesting twist: wealthy-appearing men are often targeted by young, attractive women; not the other way around.
Pharmacologically, scopolamine is classified as an anticholinergic medication and belladonna alkaloid.
- Side effects like dry mouth, blurred vision, headache, urinary retention, and dizziness can occur even at the low dose used in the transdermal patch.
- Overdoses can lead to a dangerous fast heart rate, dilated pupils, toxic psychosis, confusion, vivid hallucinations, seizures or coma, among other events.
- Use with alcohol is warned against in the official package labeling. Combining it with alcohol, as in a spiked drink, or with other sedative drugs would certainly hasten central nervous system depression. Confusion, disorientation, excitability, and amnesia could ensue with oral consumption.
- But immediate “zombie-like” side effects by blowing it into someones face? That seems unlikely, from a pharmacologic standpoint. Others have also questioned the reports of robberies taking place when the powder is blown into someone’s face or placed on a business card.
Accounts of scopolamine being used worldwide are available. In Paris a report from Newsweek Europe surfaced that elderly people were being targeted by a Chinese international network. The U.S. State Department also warns on its website that travelers to Colombia may be at risk of robbery due to criminals using a variety of drugs, not just scopolamine.
Medical case reports have been published of women from London having prolonged headaches after possible clandestine scopolamine exposure. Reports of illegal use of scopolamine in the U.S. are available, but unsubstantiated. The reliability of these all of these reports are difficult to confirm.
Nonetheless, these news stories highlight an important travel point. To prevent assault due to scopolamine — or any drug for that matter — follow these rules, as recommended by the U.S. State Department:
- Never leave food or drinks unattended when traveling.
- Do not accept food or drinks from strangers or new acquaintances.
- Travel in a large group when possible, and don’t leave with a stranger.
- Always check the State Department’s crime and safety warnings before traveling to a foreign country.
- Seek medical assistance immediately if you believe you have been drugged.
Is Devil’s Breath actually scopolamine, an urban legend, or some other drug being used to incapacitate tourists? Maybe it’s a combination of all three. Urban legend or not, the use of drugs to incapacitate, rob or rape victims can and does happen domestically and internationally. Because of that, a dose of good sense should always be used to avoid being poisoned, whether traveling abroad or just going out for the night in your own hometown.
- Bath Salts
- Fentanyl (Abuse)
- Gray Death
- Hashish (Hash)
- MDMA (Ecstasy, Molly)
- Mescaline (Peyote)
- PCP (Phencyclidine)
- Psilocybin (Magic Mushrooms)
- Speed (methamphetamine)
- Synthetic Cannabinoids (Synthetic Marijuana, Spice, K2)
- TCP (Tenocyclidine)
- U-47700 (Pink)
- The U.S. State Department. https://www.osac.gov/pages/ContentReportDetails.aspx?cid=15445
- Draper L. Does the “Devil’s Breath” Drug Really Exist? Newsweek. Europe Edition. Accessed February 11, 2019 at https://www.newsweek.com/does-devils-breath-drug-really-exist-332465
- Peatfield R, Villalón CM. Headache after exposure to “date-rape” drugs. SpringerPlus. 2013;2:39. doi:10.1186/2193-1801-2-39. Accessed February 11, 2019 at https://misuse.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/error/abuse.shtml
- Saner E. The Guardian. “Devil’s Breath” aka Scopolamine: Can It Really Zombify You? September 2, 2015. Accessed February 11, 2019 at https://www.theguardian.com/society/shortcuts/2015/sep/02/devils-breath-aka-scopolamine-can-it-really-zombify-you
- De Cordoba J. Drugged in Columbia: street thugs dope unwitting victims. The Wall Street Journal. 1995.
- VICE. Colombian Devil’s Breath. Part 1. Accessed Feb. 11, 2019 at https://video.vice.com/en_us/video/worlds-scariest-drug-colombian-devil39s-breath-part-1/55ef5be749b3d5591cf227c4
- Gordon CR, Mankuta D, Shupak A, et al. Recurrent classic migraine attacks following transdermal scopolamine intoxication. Headache. 1991;31:172–4. Accessed February 11, 2019 at https://misuse.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/error/abuse.shtml
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Stories circulating about “Devil’s Breath” are making their way around the world. Are these sensationalized stories part of an urban legend or a factual crime scene?