Abbey Conner of Pewaukee, Wisconsin vacationed at a Mexican resort, Playa del Carmen (The Carmen Beach) with her family in 2018. During their stay, Abbey and her brother, Austin,  swam on the beach. One day, a bystander on the beach noticed Austin was drowning. While hauling Austin out of the water, the bystander noticed Abbey was beside him. She was unconscious. The siblings were transported to the hospital. Austin had sustained a large bump on his forehead. He was diagnosed with a concussion. Austin couldn’t tell the doctors what had happened to him, because he couldn’t remember. Abbey couldn’t tell the doctors what had happened to her, because she had no brain activity. Both siblings were tested for date rape drugs, and their tests came back negative. Austin admitted his sister and he had been drinking, though he said neither of them had ordered more than two drinks. If they had not been drinking to excess, how could Abbey and Austin become injured—fatally in Abbey’s case—and unconscious? Though the testing for date rape drugs came back negative, doctors and authorities believe the siblings were drugged. No expert can answer definitively, but some suspect a drug in powder form was added to Abbey’s and Austin’s bar drinks: scopolamine.

As a controlled substance applied in a clinical setting via transdermal patches, this drug comes from the seeds, flowers, and pollen of the borrachero tree that is native to South America. Scopolamine treats nausea and vomiting caused post surgery. after anesthesia. or caused by motion sickness. It is also used to treat serious, long term conditions, such as muscle spasms and the symptoms of the neurological disorder, Parkinson’s disease. When used appropriately, it relaxes stomach and intestine muscles, traveling via the central nervous system. However, the drug’s legal, professional uses are not why it earned its nickname.

Unwilling users have given the drug the nickname, Devil’s Breath, because they believe that, like the Christian conception of the devil, it has the power to subvert a person’s free will. Unlike the devil, however, who constantly plots to seduce people into willingly obeying his commands to serve their own selfishness, scopolamine simply incapacitates them. While the side effects of regulated scopolamine—dry eyes, mouth, or skin, sleepiness, dizziness, restlessness, blurred vision, dilated pupils, constipation, and decreased sweating—are potentially physically uncomfortable, the side effects of unregulated scopolamine are potentially psychologically damaging.

The side effects of unregulated scopolamine include: confusion, agitation, rambling speech, hallucinations, and paranoia. Since it travels through the nervous system, scopolamine blocks neurotransmitters. Once a person’s neurotransmitters have been blocked, he or she may become unable to process or remember information. In some cases, the user becomes unconscious, as may have been the case for Abbey and Austin Conner. In some cases though, the user remains able to move while also staying entirely unaware of his or her own actions. Some users report regaining self-awareness only to find that, after strangers had offered drugged drinks unbeknownst to their victims, those victims had helped the strangers rob them of their own possessions.

If scopolamine has such potentially dangerous effects on the human nervous system, why is it sometimes given to people without their knowledge? The borrachero tree is native to South America. The drug is sometimes mixed into drinks in public bars at Mexican resort town, as medical experts and authorities believe may have been the case for Abbey and Austin Conner.

As scopolamine erases users’ short term memories, some bar patrons use it as an aggressively effective date rape drug. Scopolamine is especially useful for Colombian drug lords in cartels such as Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The gangs drug both victims and rivals, because victims’ passivity allows drug lords to commit violent acts without using coercion that might attract bystanders’ attention, and victims’ memory loss prevents them from reliably testifying in court. Sometimes, drug lords can even get neurologically compromised victims to perpetrate crimes against themselves on the drug lords’ behalf, leaving the victims with the burden of proving their incapacitated states in court if they wish for the crimes to be prosecuted.   Presently, Colombian drug cartels are migrating to Mexico. As a result, there is a risk that unregulated scopolamine may gain wider usage in the United States.

Due to the severity of its side effects, unregulated scopolamine is not a drug one uses by choice for recreational purposes. [Medical professionals only prescribe regulated scopolamine in limited dosages for treating specific medical conditions.] There are safety practices people can implement to safeguard themselves, especially when they are vacationing in unfamiliar places or meeting new people. These practices include: not approaching strangers, especially in crowded places where individual interactions cannot be easily witnessed by bystanders, not accepting food, drink, or chewing gum, all of which can easily have scopolamine sprinkled over them in powder form, from strangers, not leaving drinks unattended while spending time in bars, and, in situations where someone could be especially vulnerable, visiting public places as part of a group.

In his 1951 paper for the journal, Police Science, “Interrogation Under Drug Influence: The So-called ‘Truth Serum’ Technique” C.W. Muehlberger argues scopolamine can actually be useful in the courtroom. Sometimes, the drug’s inhibition of neurotransmitters compels a resistant suspect to testify truthfully while he or she is under interrogation. Muehlberger claims that, because scopolamine effectively prevents events from entering a subject’s short term memory, a suspect lacks the kind of capacity for consistently remembering and repeating valuable details that is necessary in order for someone to convincingly lie. After Dr. Robert House strongly advocated for the drug in the 1920s, scopolamine was widely utilized in interrogations through the mid twentieth century. It’s still used in that capacity today, but only with strict restrictions. Using scopolamine to obtain evidence is only legal for certain types of interrogations. Like any powerful substance, scopolamine should only be used in appropriate situations for ethical reasons.