There seems to be a new moral panic percolating through the blogosphere, this time about a mind-control date-rape zombie-making plant called borrachero, or burundanga, or devil's breath — "the world's most sinister drug." Under its influence, we are told, you remain lucid and articulate yet absolutely compliant to any suggestion. When you awaken, you have no recollection of what has happened. Colorless, odorless, and tasteless, the drug is slipped into drinks and sprinkled onto food. Victims become so docile that they help thieves rob their homes and empty their bank accounts. Women have been drugged repeatedly over days, gang-raped or rented out as prostitutes, or convinced to willingly give up their own children.
This drug is scopolamine, and the plant it comes from is any of the Colombian Brugmansia species, often called toé in Perú or borrachero in Colombia, which we have discussed here. Now toé is indeed a powerful sacred plant, with strong hallucinogenic and other effects, almost all of them unpleasant. But I think that what we are seeing in these stories is a recycling of an urban legend, and a sacred plant is getting a bum rap.
Apparently, these stories began circulating in 1995, with an article attributed to the Wall Street Journal. "It seems that everyone in Bogota knows someone who has been victimized by the drug," the article said. "In one common scenario, a person will be offered a soda or drink laced with the substance. The next 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. Because burundanga is often given at seedy bars or houses of prostitution, many victims are reluctant to come forward."
According to stories circulating at the time, in the mid-1990s Colombia was, as described in a later article in The Guardian, "in the grip of a crime wave caused by the use of a plant drug known locally as burundanga. The substance was implicated in hundreds of robberies, rapes and murders. According to doctors at Kennedy Hospital in Bogota, around 20 victims a week were being admitted to their emergency ward with no recollection of what had happened to them — a sure sign that, presumably by accepting a drink or a candy from a stranger, they had become unwitting victims of 'the tree that drives people mad.'"
In some of these cases, we are told, these burundanga casualties were not just the victims of crimes, but also their perpetrators. A senator and his wife reported that, presumably under its influence, they had spent a night withdrawing huge amounts of money from cash dispensers and handing it to a gang of thieves. A well-known diplomat vanished for three days only to reappear at Santiago airport in Chile, in the company of a woman he didn't know, carrying a suitcase full of cocaine.
The burundanga story was revived in 2003 by an apparent Reuters dispatch from Bogotá, under the attention-catching headline Drug Turns Crime Victims Into Zombies. The story begins with this compelling lede:
The last thing Andrea Fernandez recalls before being drugged is holding her newborn baby on a Bogota city bus. Police found her three days later, muttering to herself and wandering topless along the median strip of a busy highway. Her face was badly beaten and her son was gone. Fernandez is just one of hundreds of victims every month who, according to Colombian hospitals, are temporarily turned into zombies by a home-grown drug called scopolamine which has been embraced by thieves and rapists.
And making the rounds now, on the eve of 2008, is a a nine-part documentary about burundanga produced by online broadcast network VBS, entitled Colombian Devil's Breath — "the most dangerous drug in the world." The station — whose creative head is Spike Jonze, director of Being John Malkovich — sent two hip young reporters down to Colombia to try and score some burundanga. One of them stands in the jungle and tells us that scopolamine is "the worst roofie you can ever imagine, times a million." The reporter continues, "You are at the whim of suggestions like, hey, take me to your ATM, hey, come with me to the hotel room, while you are completely conscious and articulate." The first part of the series is here:
The drug is said to be administered in several ways. A man will approach you asking for directions, and show you a piece of paper on which the address is written. But the folded paper actually contains powdered burundanga, which the man blows in your face, rendering you powerless. Not surprisingly, this is exactly the method of administration depicted for the zombie powder tetrodotoxin in the Wes Craven movie The Serpent and the Rainbow. The plant can be put in a drink, in chewing gum, in candy. It is said that a prostitute will put burundanga on her nipples in order to drug a customer — itself an urban legend, apparently ultimately derived from the pilot episode of CSI, in which a prostitute dies from dermal absorption of scopolamine on her nipples. Series character Greg Sanders says, "No, it's scopolamine. It's a chemical used for motion sickness.... One drop of this stuff and she's out cold."
There are several reasons to be skeptical of these stories.
First, the effects of scopolamine overdose are quite well known. Clinical signs and symptoms are those of the typical peripheral anticholinergic syndrome seen in any atropine poisoning — dilated pupils, dry mucous membranes, rapidly beating heart, fever, flushed dry skin, urinary retention, confusion, disorientation, and hallucinations. Rarely seizures occur, and sometimes there are tactile hallucinations, such as crawling insects. Indeed, medical students have a mnemonic for this syndrome: blind as a bat, hot as a hare, dry as a bone, red as a beet, and mad as a hatter. Patients are often amnesiac for events between ingestion and recovery. Fatalities are rare, but have been reported in children. Sometimes urinary retention is so severe as to require catheterization.
Here are two examples, both from the same emergency room. A young man who had ingested Datura straemonium, rich in scopolamine, was admitted with agitation, delirium with persecutory ideation, and frightening hallucinations of being assaulted by animals. Similarly, a young woman, who had ingested the same plant, was agitated, with delirium, anxiety, auditory hallucinations, and frightening visual and tactile hallucination of green turtles walking on her. In both cases, the patients were restrained and treated with the antipsychotic drug cyamemazine, and both returned to normal after 36 and 40 hours, respectively.
Now, it is certainly true that people can do very weird and self-destructive things after ingesting scopolamine, especially if they are young, naïve, unprepared, and unattended; a collection of horror stories is here. But it is difficult to see these emergency room patients as being the sort of person a criminal would want to accompany into a bank.
Note, too, that both patients required restraint. Indeed, one of the problems in managing cases of scopolamine overdose is that the patient is combative rather than compliant. Hospitalization is often required — some say always required — for such agitated and combative behavior. A vivid self-report of a scopolamine overdose is found here; the paranoid hallucinations and aggressive behavior — the author reports having severely bitten a police officer — are far from the goofily compliant behavior of the burundanga stories.
Second, if burundanga worked so well, then we wouldn't be having all these arguments about waterboarding terrorism suspects. We would simply give them scopolamine and ask them, very nicely, what they were planning on doing next week, and could they please give us a look at their laptops. But scopolamine — along with barbiturates, sodium thiopental, and ordinary alcohol — has been thoroughly tested as a "truth serum," and it doesn't work. As Chris Suellentrop pointed out in an article in Slate, "So-called truth serums lower your inhibitions, and as a result you may become chattier but not necessarily more truthful. Losing your inhibitions isn't the same as losing your self-control.... If a terrorist has something he wants to get off his chest, he may be more apt to tell you about it while drunk or drugged. But you might learn about his propensity to wear his mother's burqa when he was a child, or his sinful crush on Madonna, and not his plan to blow up the Eiffel Tower. Or he may tell you lies, or he may tell you nothing at all."
The article in The Guardian, referred to above, puts it this way: "The idea that any chemical agent can be used to programme unwitting subjects to act against their will is regarded by most professional specialists as fiction." Even the fictitious drug hyoscine-pentothal, used by agent Jack Bauer for interrogation purposes in the television series 24, apparently works by causing intense pain rather than by inducing stuporous compliance. And I do not think that a powerful hallucinogen — one that makes you believe, for example, that green turtles are crawling on you — can be called a truth serum in any event.
Third, we should bear in mind that many urban legends center on eating or drinking things that have been contaminated by the feared other. In the Upper Amazon, for example, some of the tension between mestizos and Indians is reflected in the concept of cungatuya, a potentially fatal sickness which slowly closes the throat of the patient, until the person is unable to speak, eat, or drink. It is caused by a sorcerer sending a mashu, bat, to drop its phlegm or saliva into water which the victim then unknowingly drinks; the bat phlegm or saliva turns into worms that cause wounds in the victim’s throat, and which must removed by a shaman sucking them out. In San Martín, according to anthropologist Françoise Barbira-Freedman, the mestizos believe that this sickness is spread by Indians; and at feasts, weddings, and markets, mestizos warn each other about watching for phlegm in shared glassware. As in other contexts with which we may be more familiar — drinking fountains and bus seats, for example — the other is viewed as a source of dangerous contamination.
Fourth, some of these stories are ... well, fishy. A man goes into what the Wall Street Journal calls a "seedy bar or house of prostitution," and then has to explain to his wife why his cash is all gone. A well-known diplomat has to explain a lost weekend, a woman not his wife, and a suitcase full of cocaine. As The Guardian puts it, some claims of brainwashing "are better understood in terms of disinhibition which causes people to act in ways that they later regret." Such stories remind me of this line from Ghostbusters II, when a woman being interviewed by Bill Murray tells him, "I was sitting at the bar alone, and this alien approached me. He started talking to me, he bought me a drink. And then he must have used some kind of a ray or a mind control device because he forced me to follow him to his room and that's where he told me about the end of the world."
For example, the Wall Street Journal article tells the story of an architect named David Meneses. One Friday night, Mr. Meneses stopped at a pharmacy to buy antacid. He says that two well-dressed men approached his car, and the last thing he remembers is one of them unwrapping a piece of candy. "I woke up the next day at noon at my house," he says, with no memory of how he got there. On Monday, Mr. Meneses says that he checked with his bank, and he was told that his ATM card had made thirteen withdrawals for a total of about $700 on that Friday night. The doorman in his building said that he had seen Mr. Meneses come in at 7:00 a.m. looking "nervous and confused." Three days later, Mr. Meneses noticed that he had a flat tire. Two men on the street approached him and offered to change it. He remembers that they gave him something to drink — and he drank it. "I can't imagine why," he says. Police found him asleep in his car six hours later. He said that he had been robbed of his radio and about $125. He blames burundanga for both incidents.
Still, despite my skepticism, there is every reason to be careful. There really is some nasty stuff out there — real date-rape drugs such as gamma-hydroxybutyric acid and flunitrazepam. If you are looking for a little action in Medellin, be at least as careful as you are — I hope — in Chicago.