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‘The World's Most Dangerous Drug' Grows Everywhere in Romania

Scopolamine is extracted from Datura, a bush that can be found all over Bucharest – from abandoned parking lots to people's backyards.

by Răzvan Călinescu
14 October 2015, 12:09pm

A Datura bush on a random street in Bucharest. All photos courtesy of author.

This article originally appeared on VICE Romania

I've always had a bad relationship with drugs. Pathetically, even smoking weed makes me ill. One time, after I smoked a joint, I ended up locking myself in a dark room, laying down in the foetal position and staring blankly at a copper kettle for hours.

Given my awkward relationship with drugs, it's sort of odd that I started investigating the Datura bush. Perhaps you've heard of scopolamine – sometimes referred to as "the most dangerous drug in the world"; Well, that stuff is extracted from Datura seeds. The seeds are extremely potent and a quick skim of internet drug forums brings up a rake of terrifying bad trip accounts. There are literally thousands of stories from people who've completely lost their mind on only a few Datura seeds. Many can't remember what they've done for days at a time and the stuff is so poisonous it can kill you. Some people have even used it to kill themselves.

But, Datura grows freely in Romania. It's everywhere – from abandoned parking lots to people's backyards. I even found a patch of it in downtown Bucharest, right next to the newly restored Cultural Institute. The guard that was taking care of the place told me he knew exactly what it was and what was capable of doing.

"I cut it, but the damn thing is so resilient. It can grow out of gravel," he explained.

According to Iosif Gaboş-Grecu, a psychiatrist at the Târgu Mureş Psychiatry Clinic, ingesting Datura stramonium seeds can cause extreme hallucinations that last for days. He recalled one instance when a "clearly psychotic" kid was brought into the hospital because he had ingested a few seeds. Iosif said it was the first time he'd been confronted with anything so drastic.

"It's a rather famous case," the psychiatrist told me, while skimming some of his papers. "The child had been walking in the park with a friend and ate a fistful of seeds. Not long after that, he fell down in the street. He was brought to the hospital in critical condition. The poison in the plant can induce mental illness, hallucinations and perception disorders. The visual hallucinations are the most intense part. They're terrifying. That boy couldn't tell what was happening to him – he was seeing monsters, breathing heavily and seemed visibly agitated. People can't control themselves when they're in that state. They can easily become dangerous without being aware of it. I wouldn't even be surprised if they killed someone. That kid almost lost his life," he said.

Still, some people are taking the stuff recreationally. One young man I met named Alexander told me about his experience with Datura: "After taking it, you fall into a deep sleep, but when you wake up you're still dreaming. I guess it can either be a dream or a nightmare. You can't really tell whether or not you're awake, you could easily jump in front of a truck," explained Alexander.

"I was tripping for two days after taking the stuff. Trying to find my girlfriend in bushes that I thought were trains. For another 48 hours after that, I would eat anything shiny that I found – even sun cream. I'd be sitting at a table with my friends and I would just casually put body cream in my hand and eat it. In the end, it turned out that the guys who gave me the seeds did it to rob me. They took everything – my backpack, my sandals, everything," he went on.

A friend of Alexander's named Andrew disappeared for a few days after trying Datura. His parents found him completely dehydrated and convinced that he was shipwrecked on an island.

"He looked like a zombie. They had to rush him to intensive care," Alexander told me. Strangely enough, he smiled and nodded when I asked if he'd give Datura another go. Luckily, most people who've had such extreme episodes get so scared they never try it again.

Datura bush growing beside office buildings

The plant is thought to have been brought to Europe from South America by "New World" explorers – together with plants like corn, tomatoes and potatoes (which Datura is actually related to). Historically, the plant has had many uses. The Aztecs used Datura inoxia during their initiation rites. Those that survived the hallucinations would either "return a man" or not return at all. Alexandru Şuţu, a famous 19th century Romanian psychiatrist, used it to calm his patients. Romanian writers would even use it as a sleeping aid.

"In one region of Romania, it's called "bolundariţă" – which means 'that which makes you insane,'" explained Professor Vasile Cristea, President of the Botanical Garden in Cluj-Napoca. These days a muscle relaxant called atropine is legally extracted from it.

"Atropine is used in eye medicine, because it enlarges your pupils. But it also contains alkaloids, which, if used incorrectly could lead to some very sad situations. It raises your heart rate, weakens your muscles, causes confusion, incoherence, hallucinations and anaemia. But in certain legal doses it's a very useful sedative, an antispasmodic," explained the professor.

Romanian psychiatrist Gabriel Cicu, however, doesn't think we should be calling the scopolamine extracted from Datura "the most dangerous drug in the world".

"That's just American marketing," he said, before pointing out that fans of this type of trip were an anomaly on the drug scene. "There are certain people looking for out-of-body experiences and enhanced states of consciousness. This sort of trip is more of a naturist hobby; about being one with the environment. It's only really these types of people that are into datura. They're modern hippies. It really isn't that common."

He also said that Datura is no different to regular drugs, when it comes to misuse: "People aren't looking for a bad trip. Sure, Datura can cause that, but that's not what people are after. Maybe it isn't a great comparison, but Datura misuse is sort of like a heroin overdose: An exceptional situation where things spiral out of control because of irresponsibility. Forgive my exaggeration, but I think you could look at Datura like a sort of Romanian ayahuasca. To some, it might seem excessive, but not to those who take it. Sometimes things just go wrong," he concluded.

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