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SCOPOLAMINE

‘Devil’s breath’ used to hypnotise, rob victims

The medicine is licensed for the treatment of urinary incontinence, motion sickness or abdominal pain. But criminals have other ideas

In Summary

• Once administered to a victim, the drug leads to hallucinations, frightening images, amnesia and a lack of free will. 

Scopolamine, popularly known as devil's breath which is used to 'hypnotize' and rob innocent people
Scopolamine, popularly known as devil's breath which is used to 'hypnotize' and rob innocent people
Image: /COURTESY

Two years ago in August, he was woken up by members of the public, who notified him that he had been sleeping at a backstreet corner for about three hours. 

Ken Mwenda* (not his real name), a photojournalist at a local media house, says he was unable to immediately recall what had made him doze off.

He had just alighted a matatu at Koja Mosque roundabout when he was approached by a man and woman asking for directions. 

 

Mwenda was on his way to downtown Nairobi to purchase camera speed light batteries when he decided to manoeuvre through back streets since he knows a lot of shortcuts. 

He was approached by the seeming couple as he passed the old Akamba bus stage. 

"I met a man and a woman who said they were stranded and were asking for directions to Modern Coast bus, and being the good Samaritan, I volunteered to help them," he said. 

Mwenda says the couple seemed satisfied with the directions he had offered and asked to exchange details. 

"All I can remember from that exchange is a firm handshake from the man as we parted. I later woke up in a backstreet," he said. 

When he woke up, the photojournalist was feeling nauseated and dizzy, only to discover his backpack zipper was open and his camera and speed light were gone.

"My phone too was taken away from me, and my wallet emptied all my money...I was left without any money on me," he said. 

 

He was assisted by a lady who owned a nearby stall, who volunteered to give him fare money and let him wash his face at her business premises. 

"She also gave me food and a lot of water. Since then I don't take chances when walking in town," he said. 

Mwenda says he sought treatment from his mother, who owns a pharmacy. 

"I went to her clinic and she gave me some medicine, but I never reported the matter to the police," he said. 

KINDNESS PUNISHED

Businesswoman Mama June*, 45, says she will never be a good Samaritan to just any random stranger again. 

In December 2015, two women approached her, asking if she could help them with directions. 

"I was happy to because it's dangerous for a woman especially to be walking around town without knowing where she is going," she said. 

However, after a while, she began to feel dizzy, and when she came to, she was sitting on a city bench without any of her belongings. 

"They had stolen my phone, my money and other valuables I had. I would never have suspected fellow women could do that," she said. 

She was assisted by some security guards to trace her whereabouts because she was "confused and did not recognise where I was exactly".

She chose to go to the hospital after the guards told her she had been drugged by the "devil's breath". 

"I did not have any side-effects, but my trust in people has really been affected. People are very evil nowadays," she said. 

 

DEVIL'S BREATH

Scopolamine is an antimuscarinic agent, which means it has an effect on the central nervous system. It is derived from the flower of the “borrachero” shrub, common in Colombia. It has been used for years in South America for spiritual rituals. 

Commonly known as 'devil's breath', once administered to a victim, it leads to hallucinations, frightening images, amnesia and a lack of free will. 

The Kenya Pharmacy and Poisons Board says the drug has several brands, but the medicine is commonly known as Hyscione butylbromide.

"The medicine is licensed for the treatment of urinary incontinence, motion sickness or relieving of abdominal pain, bladder spasms," the regulator says.

The drug can be administered in several dosage forms, including oral (hard gelatin capsules, oral drops, syrup, powder), injectable and through a transdermal patch. 

"This agent blocks the activity of a naturally produced chemical (the acetylcholine), and when it acts on unintended tissues, it would produce adverse drug reactions," the regulator says. 

The reactions include blurred vision, dry mouth, sleepiness, dizziness, dilated pupils, dry or itchy eyes, constipation and decreased sweating. 

Some of the ways used to administer the drug include using foods and beverages and blowing it into the victims face. Once it enters the bloodstream, the victim loses free will and becomes suggestible. 

Dr John Mwangi* from a local pharmacy in Kiambu says scopolamine is locally accessible but must be obtained with a genuine prescription from a qualified practitioner. 

"In every pharmacy, there must be a book to record the number of tablets sold out that should be tallied with the remaining stock," he said.