Arrests made over zombifying drug known as 'devil's breath'

Can a sniff of powder believed to be used by witches in the Middle Ages turn you into a zombie at the beck and call of your attacker? Maybe so, three arrests in Paris indicate.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
3 min read

It sounds like a scene from a spy movie. Two Chinese women, suspected of being members of an international Triad-like criminal group, persuade strangers walking down the street to inhale a mysterious powder they allege has curative powers. But the powder actually causes the victims to enter a zombie-like state and are made to lead their attackers to their homes, where they are summarily robbed.

While it might sound like fiction, this scene has allegedly taken place again and again in Paris, according to a report in the British newspaper The Telegraph. The paper reported on Tuesday that two Chinese women and one man were arrested by authorities in the city on suspicion of using a drug known as "the devil's breath" to gain access to homes and the treasures they contain "dozens of times."

The drug is also known as burandanga or scopolamine and is derived from henbane, a member of the nightshade family of plants. According to Drugs.com, scopolamine can be used medicinally in the treatment of Parkinson's disease, irritable bowel syndrome and other conditions, with a recent find suggesting its medical use dates back to Ottoman times. It's also used in low doses to treat motion sickness, according to UK newspaper The Guardian, though in high enough doses, the stuff "would completely zonk you out," Val Curran, a professor of pharmacology at UCL's Clinical Pharmacology Unit, told the paper. Perhaps we finally have an answer for what causes zombification in "The Walking Dead."

Scopolamine can be derived from black henbane, seen here, which is called "stinking nightshade" because of the foul odor it emits. "All parts of the plant are poisonous to animals and humans," reports the US Department of the Interior. U.S. Department of the Interior

When Parisian authorities raided the arrested women's hotel room, they found "various Chinese medicinal substances as well as weighing scales, filters and gloves," reports The Telegraph, quoting the Le Parisien newspaper. Those substances are now being analyzed.

In the meantime, Chinese authorities told their French counterparts that the two women and a man who allegedly made the powder belonged to a Chinese crime syndicate that "acts around the world and specializes in mental submission with the aid of unknown products," according to Le Parisien.

Crimes related to the drug have been widely reported in Colombia and Ecuador, according to The Guardian, and the US's Overseas Security Advisory Council warns travelers visiting Columbia to beware of a scopolamine attack. (Here's an interesting short film about scopolamine in Colombia from Vice.)

"Unofficial estimates put the number of annual scopolamine incidents in Colombia at approximately 50,000, says the agency's website. "It is most often administered in liquid or powder form in foods and beverages. The majority of these incidents occur in night clubs and bars, and usually men, perceived to be wealthy, are targeted by young, attractive women. To avoid becoming a victim of scopolamine, one should never accept food or beverages offered by strangers or new acquaintances, nor leave food or beverages unattended."

But could the drug actually remove your free will, as some claim?

Les King, a chemist and former forensic scientist, told The Guardian that the thought of a person becoming a walking zombie from some inhaled powder "seems pretty unlikely for a start." Curran also added that one of the difficulties with the case is that there was no toxicology report, so it's hard to say exactly what was in the powder. "The idea that it is scopolamine is a bit far-fetched, because it could be anything," he said.

Adding to the spy-like quality of this story is the fact that scopolamine brings with it a rich history.

According to the CIA, scopolamine was used in the early part of the 20th century, along with morphine and chloroform, to send women into a "twilight state" during childbirth. "A constituent of henbane, scopolamine was known to produce sedation and drowsiness, confusion and disorientation, incoordination, and amnesia for events experienced during intoxication," the agency says. "Yet physicians noted that women in twilight sleep answered questions accurately and often volunteered exceedingly candid remarks."

That led a Texas obstetrician to decide to use the drug in the interrogation of criminals, thus turning the drug into a truth serum. According the The Guardian, there are reports of it being used as such in Nazi Germany, as well as being employed by witches in the Middle Ages -- as you'd imagine with something that comes from a plant called "henbane."