Tales of its power are hideous. Victims turned into obedient slaves who give up their house keys and PIN numbers after having a mysterious white powder blown in their faces; young women abducted and raped after having their drinks spiked; and wealthy hotel guests robbed blind — almost literally — after accepting a contaminated room key from a flirtatious admirer at the bar.
And all the while, these unfortunates are often not only conscious but articulate — their apparently normal demeanour drastically reducing the chance that anyone will notice they are in danger.
It’s not for nothing that the drug scopolamine is also known as Devil’s Breath, as so much about it is diabolical.
An immensely powerful mind-control drug, it’s the perfect tool for robbers, rapists and kidnappers.
The odourless and tasteless compound temporarily reduces victims to a zombified state in which they have no free will and become highly suggestible to what others tell them.
To cap it all, afterwards, they don’t recall a thing about what happened. If there is an ‘afterwards’, that is.
Prosecutors in London last week said that dancing champion Adrian Murphy was given Devil’s Breath — also called the Zombie Drug — and never recovered.
Joel Osei and his girlfriend Diana Cristea, described as ‘a pair of ruthless grifters’ in court, allegedly killed the Irishman in his Battersea flat, before stealing from his home and using his identity to attempt to buy diamonds costing more than £62,000 (R1,3m) from a New York jeweller.
The traces of scopolamine found in his body, as well as in a can of Coca-Cola and a glass found at the scene, provided a crucial link to another poisoning last year, in which Osei allegedly gave a glass of orange juice — again spiked with the drug — to another man in his flat in Walthamstow, North-East London.
This victim, who was robbed but was mercifully discovered by a neighbour, told prosecutors he remembered ‘standing up and my legs feeling like they had been injected with lead or something’ and ‘thinking I was going to pass out’. The trial continues.
Just a gram of this plant-based psychoactive alkaloid is considered sufficient to kill ten to 15 people.
It’s particularly dangerous when taken with alcohol.
Scientists say the substance — derived from the nightshade plant family — shuts down the short-term memory by blocking the brain’s nerve cells.
However, tiny amounts of scopolamine are used in medication for motion sickness, post-surgical nausea, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Scopolamine is obtained by chemically processing the seeds of the borrachero tree (which translates as the ‘get-you-drunk’ tree) which grows wild in Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.
It has deceptively beautiful trumpet-shaped flowers and a reputation for being so powerful that even sniffing the pollen will provide strange dreams.
Scopolamine powder looks like cocaine — Colombia’s other famous export — but people are rarely stupid enough to take it for fun.
Side-effects often include hallucinations, paralysis, breathing difficulties and heart seizures.
Matthew Johnson, a drugs expert at Johns Hopkins Medical School in the U.S., is convinced the claims surrounding Devil’s Breath are not ‘urban myths’ but entirely justified.
One of his own friends had his drink spiked in a bar in the Colombian capital Bogota and, when a group of strangers asked him to go to his hotel room and get his laptop computer for them, he didn’t hesitate to oblige.
Devil’s Breath is now ubiquitous in Colombian crime, and is estimated to be involved in 50,000 criminal assaults there annually.
The country is the world’s kidnap capital and a drug that wipes out victims’ recall of their abductors is obviously a boon — no wonder it’s dubbed the ‘million dollar ride’.
In Bogota, one out of every five emergency hospital visits is reportedly due to scopolamine poisoning.
Mothers have had their babies stolen out of their arms, while it’s even been claimed that some people have woken to find their internal organs have been removed.
In most cases, traces of the drug disappear from a victim’s bloodstream within hours.
Survivors report being plagued by sporadic memory loss and nightmares for years afterwards. Though often they’re the lucky ones. Some victims have died of heart attacks after their captors have given them too strong a dose.
And Devil’s Breath (so named, some believe, because it ‘steals your soul’) is spreading far beyond the gritty streets of Bogota.
Scopolamine is not classed as a controlled substance in either the UK or U.S. It is also freely available on the internet in China and is also advertised on the unregulated ‘dark web’ to any would-be buyer.