Scopolamine: "Zombie drug" and astronaut anti-puke helper

BB reader Brian Corcoran says,

VBS.TV recently did a story on Scopolamine, a substance commonly referred to as "Devils Breath" in Colombia, where it is a common street drug.

This stuff is as close to pure evil as it gets, a tiny amount of the powder administered to the victim causes one of two effects, a) death, or b) complete loss of free will. Criminals are usually hoping for the latter, as it enables them to tell victims to empty their bank accounts, give away their car, perform sex acts, basically whatever the criminal dictates.

This is where Scopolamine has got its reputation as the "zombie drug", victims appear completely sober and rational, but they're really just automatons.

Video Link to story, which documents contributor Ryan Duffy's scopolamine investigation in 9 parts (Flash 9 required). Here's a CNN followup piece.

I'm more familiar with the non-street variety of scopolamine used in much smaller doses as a anti-motion sickness remedy, by prescription in the USA. It's half of a legal drug cocktail known as "ScopeDex" (Scopolamine + Dexedrine), sometimes taken by astronauts and those in training to prevent nausea and vomiting in altered gravity environments (for instance, on "vomit comet" flights). When I flew on an inaugural Zero-G flight for press and celebs a few years ago, ScopeDex was recommended as one way to avoid puking during the flight. I didn't take it, because anything that comes from jimson weed (and other datura relatives) has gotta be evil in my book. But others who've done zero gravity flights (with NASA and otherwise) teased me for passing it up, and joked that scopedex was like a "legal speedball," not to be missed.

Scopolamine recently popped up in the news as a treatment for bipolar disorder and depression: Link. The drug also has history as a sort of truth serum administered in interrogation environments -- it was used by the CIA in the 1960s, during the MKULTRA program. Woohoo, good times!


  1. Wiki talks about scopolamine’s legitimate uses:

    “In medicine scopolamine has 3 primary uses: treatment of nausea and motion sickness, treatment of intestinal cramping, and for ophthalmic purposes.”

    I remember that scopolamine used to be used to relieve pain in childbirth. The scopolamine gave amnesia, which is also why it’s used as a date rape drug.

  2. I don’t know why you’d need this for zero gravity? I take Meclizine (Antivert) for severe air and sea sickness and it cures me completely with only a little drowsiness as a side effect.

    1. Because on some of us Meclozine and related drugs have very little effect. Scopolamine is the only thing that’s helped me at all for motion sickness.
      As transdermal patches, I’ve never encountered any of the effects of scopolamine mentioned here. It’s certainly not something I would voluntarily put on unless I’m looking at air or sea travel.

  3. *sigh* yet another drug of abuse, although this is a new twist to “abuse.”

    The fact that this is derived from datura is not surprising– I’ve read harrowing accounts of datura trips; it creates dangerously realistic hallucinations, and gives hangovers that last days (as well as being one of those drugs where it’s very easy to overdose).

  4. A friend in high school tried jimson weed, and reported “real” monsters chasing him and other “solid” hallucinations, not just enhancements or distortions. Plus, he seemed to have lasting cognitive problems after a single episode. Compared to the “normal” hallucinogens like LSD, psilocybin, etc., it sounded like really nasty stuff, basically a guaranteed bad trip.

  5. I took scope-dex before my first zero g flight in college — it was the dex part that totally screwed me up, my whole body seemed to be vibrating from the speed. Eventually I went home and crashed. The next time I flew, I didnt’ take it, didn’t seem worth the trouble, especially since I’ve never been motion sick in my life.

  6. This is pretty old, but as with much of what’s on–VERY good. Also recommend their documentary on Columbia’s Street Kids. Brutally eye-opening/heartbreaking. Another favorite: ‘Thumbs Up’ with David Cho.

    A few more like VBS and TV will be dead to me (yay!)

  7. Jimson weed (thorn apple) was commonly used on travelers by the Thuggee in India. The thuggee would mix it in their food and use the resulting delirium to kill them by strangulation for their version of the Goddess Kali.

  8. @anonymous#6, there are other ways to avoid motion sickness in zero gravity. Some less intense drugs work for some people, and I’ve always made do with a pocket full of Altoids or gum, and some techniques that involve minimizing inner ear confusion.

    Bottom line: in heavy-G pullup period, stay still, don’t move your head, keep your eyes fixed on one spot, other things you can do to trick your physiology into not freaking out. It’s not the weightless parts that make you sick, it’s the heavy-g parts before or after.

    I’ve flown zero g multiple times, and never used even over-the-counter drugs for motion sickness on those flights. I’ve had a few woozy moments, but never puked or had enough probs that the experience was unenjoyable.

  9. I was on a research ship in the middle of the Pacific for 25 days and I used scopolamine transdermal patches to keep from getting sick. It worked pretty well, the one time I took it off I puked my guts out, but it made me feel . . . odd. The most notable side effect is that it dilates your pupils so you have trouble reading. I would have not taken it, but I had little choice as I’m pretty prone to motion sickness.

  10. @ntac, right — betcha you were receiving much smaller doses of a much higher quality / more pure substance than what they’re referring to as “devil’s breath.”

  11. It’s an anticholinergic and its psychotomimetic properties are well known. Ask anyone who has worked on a cruise ship about it, and they will have stories about passengers who mis-used their scopolamine patches. Where the “zombie” claim comes from I have no idea. If patients/victims were compliant no one would lock them in sick bay or report them to police.

  12. I hope someone will chime in with why we should legalize this stuff.

    I suspect that jimson weed (which grows wild, so it’s out there for any fool who wants to try it) is one of those “self-policing” drugs whose legal status is somewhat irrelevant. For example, the kid who tried it in our school had such a horrible experience that to my knowledge, none of the other kids ever tried it, not even the ones who were doing acid, mescaline, etc. It could’ve been legal and it wouldn’t have made much difference — taking the drug was its own punishment.

  13. Phasor—I agree. Plants containing these anti-cholinergic compounds grow wild all over the U.S. In the NE it’s Jimsonweed (datura stramonium), in the SW here it’s datura meteloides. These plants are some of the “witching herbs” that include henbane, belladonna, and mandrake. They’re all in the solanaceae (nightshade) family, which includes tomato, eggplant and potato. They aren’t hallucinogens but rather deliriants because of their toxicity. Your cholinergic neurotransmissions are integral to the storage of short term memory, so if you take these drugs and block it, you make the person forget what is happening to them. Yes, they’re nasty drugs.
    In small doses, scopolamine is very effective in fighting nausea, but it can’t be ingested all at once or you get hallucinations, which is why the transdermal ear patch was developed.

  14. You’re a knowledgeable lot. Good thing, that. Datura’s a rotten lousy high. You can’t take care of yourself for the duration, you risk death and various kinds of damage, and afterward you won’t remember a bit of it. There’s a lovely description of the first European run-in with datura, in Jamestown, which is where Jimsonweed gets its name. This is from Robert Beverly (c. 1673 – c. 1722), History and Present State of Virginia (1705):

    The James Town Weed (which resembles the Thorny Apple of Peru, and I take to be the plant so call’d) is supposed to be one of the greatest Coolers in our World. This being an early Plant, was gather’d very young for a for a boil’d Salad, by some of the soldiers sent thither, to pacify the troubles of Bacon; and some of them eat plentifully of it, the Effect of which was a very pleasant Comedy; for they turn’d natural Fools upon it for several days; One would blow up a Feather in the air; another would dart Straws at it with much Fury; and another stark naked was sitting up in a Corner, like a Monkey, grinning and making Mows at them; a Fourth would fondly kiss, and paw his Companions, and snear in their Faces, with a Countenance more antick, than any in a Dutch Droll. In this frantick Condition they were confined, lest they should in their Folly destroy themselves; though it was observed, that all their Actions were full of Innocence and good Nature. Indeed, they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallow’d in their own Excrements, if they had not been prevented. A Thousand such simple Tricks they play’d, and after Eleven Days, return’d to themselves again, not remembering any thing that had pass’d.

    Scopolamines are specific to the Solanaceae, not the Daturas.

    Their amnesia-inducing properties were a great cheat at the time that they were used to treat pain during labor. It wasn’t so much that the women didn’t feel pain; scopolamine is no great shakes as an analgesic. The trick was that they didn’t remember the pain afterward.

    To avoid motion sickness, fix your eyes on the horizon, and center your chi.

  15. My mom has used scopolamine for years to treat severe vertigo and motion sickness. It comes in pre-measured doses in a needle-less syringe. You squirt it onto you wrist, rub it in to the skin, and it works within seconds. I’ve used it for motion sickness (and even for nausea from a hangover) I have to say it works really well. It may be dangerous at higher doses, but so are a lot of medicines.

  16. Am I the only one who gets audio, but no video, at I’m running OS X here and I tried both safari and firefox, I have flash plugin 9…

  17. The fact that it “takes away free will”, if true, is pretty fascinating from a scientific point of view–I wonder if there have been any studies of what it’s doing in the brain? Could there be similarities to what happens during hypnosis, for example?

  18. I doubt there are significant similarities to what happens during hypnosis, since a hypnotized individual retains free will (to at least some degree, and whatever free will a human can be said to have)… At least, according to what I’ve read about it. A SciAm article a few years back stated that a person can bring themself out of the trance if they want to.

    Whereas, with a drug like scopalamine that messes with your neurochemistry…

    I’m actually not sure what to believe about the effect of certain drugs on “free will” though. Some supposedly cause a person to literally obey any instructions given to them and do nothing of their own volition, although they don’t feel drugged and don’t appear drugged to an observer. One of those I’ve heard of causing such symptoms is fentanyl… But my own experience with fentanyl (administered for a minor surgical procedure) contradicts that. It might be dependent on the dosage or something, but it seems more likely to me that it renders a person so out of it that they have no idea what is going on, and so can be easily manipulated (think sleepwalker).

    I’m sure it’s possible for someone to be rendered conscious, coherent, completely normal to all appearances, and completely sans “free will”, but I don’t see how it could be done without a very, very precise lobotomy.

  19. I’ve had problems with motion-sickness for at least 37 years. (Maybe longer, but before then my parents thought I was just spitting up.) If you never get motion-sick, or only get a little sick in extraordinary conditions (like being on a small boat in a storm), it’s hard to understand what it’s like to get sick easily and all the damn time. If meclizine is enough for your mild motion-sickness, you’re lucky. It’s cheap and legal, and only moderately sedating. Dimenhydrinate is enough for somewhat less mild motion-sickness, though it’s more sedating. Scopolamine is for people whose motion-sickness is so severe it does not respond to dimenhydrinate, or for when they need to be functional and dramamine would put them to sleep.

    With any drug, risks and side effects depend on the dose. Most people are familiar with consuming an amount of alcohol that makes them feel relaxed and flushed. Ten times that amount would bring on hallucinations, and twenty times that amount could kill. When scopolamine is abused,* it’s with very much higher doses than the theraputic doses used to treat motion-sickness.

    *Using drugs to induce hallucinations in other people without their knowledge may be a *weird* kind of drug abuse, but I still think it’s drug abuse.

  20. what amazed me about the VBS-TV piece was that the two oh so cool hipsters (usual vice MO)thought that no one but themselves Knew of this “devil drug” !Don’t they have t’tinternets or nuttin?

  21. excellent comments guys.. wanted to point out a few other things on the datura plant.

    – the origins of the zombie myth comes from the carribean where the local datura species is used in the cocktail for ‘making zombies’

    – the video points out that datura has a cultural tie in columbia but that’s not the only one. Truly due to the veracity of this plant there’s cultural significance for this plant in folklore all over the world.

    – the book “coin locker babies” by ryu murakami is an ace extension of the datura myth, if you haven’t read it.

  22. I was given Scope-Dex for a ride on the Vomit Comet, ages ago. I had a delayed side effect about a week later–a deep sense of disappointment that the guy I gave my snapshot camera to took really crappy pictures of me–but that was about it.

    I got a second chance to ride and NASA were out of Scope-Dex but had Dramamine. That worked almost as well, and a lot better than Bonine (because they shortly ran out of Dramamine too).

  23. I’m an anesthesiologist, and we frequently use scopolamine for severely I’ll patients (specifically, trauma patients who are not cardiovascularly stable). Its use in that context is for sedation, and I’ve never seen anyone who frankly loses “free will.” Like most of the sedatives we use in practice, people become uninhibited and may be more succeptible to the powers of suggestion – but I wouldn’t call them “zombies.”

  24. This Scope-Dex sounds like bad crap.

    It is AMAZING the lengths that people will go to to avoid smoking marijuana.

    Pot still is the Champion anti-nausea drug.

  25. It’s the drug my grandmother was given as an anesthetic for childbirth. She spoke quiet highly of “Twilight Sleep” because she had no recollection of the experience whatsoever.

  26. All this talk of Scopolamine being used as a remedy for motion sickness has reminded me of an amazing episode of “Mythbusters” in which they test out several anti-nausea solutions. Interestingly, the most effective for both test subjects was a ginger pill. Second most effective was an over-the-counter drug, which worked, but made both participants feel “drugged”. I can’t remember the line verbatim, but one of the test subjects said something to the effect of “I feel too drugged to be sick right now”.
    Here’s an episode summary –—Kill-or-Cure.html

  27. “Twilight sleep” was scopolamine + morphine. They stopped using it for childbirth because it presented a significant risk of ashyxiation to the baby, but I believe dentists used it for a while longer.

  28. I was really disappointed that neither of the two blokes on the VBS show gave the stuff a go.

    I wonder what the legal situation is if your ATM is emptied under the influence of this drug, as you haven’t given anyone else the PIN.

  29. @brian corcoran, ah, I forgot about ginger! Some veteran zero-g flyers mentioned this, and I know expecting moms throughout history have used this for morning sickness. Yeah, some people on the zero-g flights carried candied ginger to help with nausea. Makes sense.

  30. The Spanish word “Colombia” in English is still spelled “Colombia”. Please make notes of the absolute absence of the letter U.

    On a totally different note:
    I lived in Colombia for 16 years, and while many times I heard of scopolamine referred to as “Burundanga”, as correctly noted in Wikipedia, but I never heard of it called anything that would translate into Devil’s Breath. Does the documentary actually state what the Spanish term is? I’m just curious.

  31. Is scopolamine what they used to call “Twilight Sleep?” Was given to my mother during my birth. Apparently a really terrifying experience for her.

  32. A treatment using scopolamine transdermal patches is being researched for necrotic arachnidism from hobo or recluse spider bites. Hobo spiders rarely bite when disturbed, but if the inject the venom :

    “The process which causes the local phenomenon of necrotic arachnidism involves circulatory disturbances which result in ischemia, or lack of adequate blood flow in the affected tissues. Following venom injection, rapid coagulation of blood occurs in the smaller blood vessels of these tissues. This produces a centralized area which does not receive enough blood, and the area literally dies as a result of oxygen starvation. ”

    If you get an infected lesion treatment with antibiotics often does not help as the venom continues to act over time on the small blood vessels around the wound restricting flow.

    Scopolamine patches open the vessels and keep them open over time so that tissue necrosis is reduced and the body’s immune system response or antibiotics can reach the lesion.

    Early reccomendations are to put a patch or doughnut cutout from a patch on as soon as the bite is identified. Apparently this can effectively reduce most of the subsequent necrotic effects.

  33. Scopolamine – containing plants, and especially the Brugmansia spp. are very important in South American pharmakopoeia, and even held as highly sacred by several tribes, whose medicine men use it for magical work…. They are not “evil”, but certainly not something to get high on!

  34. This drug is freaky. It does help significantly with nausea, but man the side effects! I took it an hour or two before I went to asleep and felt slightly drugged and delusional, but nothing I couldn’t handle. Then I had the worst and most realistic nightmare! It was living hell and I could even feel things it was so realistic. I was thrashing about the whole night and my blankets were all over the place and I was hanging onto the side of my bed…scared some people. You don’t know what a nightmare is until you take this. Honestly. But the relief it provided me was worth it, so it’s up to you. It does help to be well seasoned in the land of psychotic episodes. That would be me. :-)
    Interesting comments by the way!

  35. haha sorry but half these comments make me laugh. if any of you have ever dun datura and have any self control you’d realize its contains multiple stimulants and a hallucingen. If this says anything like a wired phycoactive trip that would explain the phycological changes in the brain. You can get sick and overdose on anything from vitamins to water to herion. This is where self control comes into play. whether you wanna talk to you self and tell self stuff… haha sorry but in moderation once you build a tolerance this drug becomes an adrenline boost with an added phycotrace (what ever you think, feel, ect.) is enhanced by the muscura (also found in amanita’s). Haha imagine if you had the self strength to make yourself super human. Don’t get me wrong though, over 99% of the population can’t handle addiction. In reallity addiction is how you talk to yourself, convince yourself. Studies show cocaine sesures (y splld t wrng fk ff) are cause by the want of cocaine. If you know the real cemistry of the body not the bullshit the government feeds you, you would realize how the world is a mask to the face of whats really around you. Cancer is caused by dna failure, what causes your body to run incorrectly? What you put in it and how you run yourself. If you ate healthy, excercised, keep yourself on a stable level of reality, you’d realize doing drugs is just another apple off the tree your eating. Its how you abuse your amino acids. You can eat to much of one thing and itd would malfunction your body the same as shooting up herion 60 times a day, youd be dead. Your body is built to process and get the best out of what you give it. Then it becomes how your brew is created. Your body chemistry changes constantly due to what is has to run. Purhaps you find a balance of healthy foods and stimulants, your not a drug addict your enjoying your only life with what you are. Don’t over look the chemistry, and please, know what you talking about before you dis on this devil’s breath. ya delerient I agree, but with control it becomes another experince in life. ll f y wh dn’t gr cn fk ff nd dn’t knw nythng f tr bdy chm nd sy wht y wnt bt m stll syng g fk r slf nd njyng my lf. h y nd drgs mk y dmb nly f y bs nd dn’t xcrsc yr mnd. fk ff nb

  36. oh yea by the way this drug can be very additive and dangerous to your average drug consuming fool. stay head strong foo

  37. wowdonttalk, give that spellcheck a try there sometime, eh? it would make what you write look like it was written by something other than a second-grader. im jus sayin. and the whole “fuk this/ fuk yourself/ fuk off” thing, you may wanna give that a shot as well. come to think of it, your name kinda says it all, right there.

  38. Seems like one more thing to be frightened of at a house party. I mean seriously. I had just heard about this drug a few days ago and I thought salvia was bad. That’s gonna leave a lot of young women heading to the doctor’s office for removal of some sort of ills caused by devious men. Or men going because of devious women!

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