How Poisonous, How Harmful?

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Brugmansia suaveolens.


Datura/Brugmansia plants usually have an unpleasant taste so accidental poisoning from direct ingestion of plant material is unusual. Most poisoning results from the consumption of a tea made from the seeds either for its alleged medicinal benefits or for its hallucinogenic effects.

A number of symptoms have been reported and not all are present in every case. Twenty-nine sources have been examined, both scientific papers reporting on specific cases and ‘herbals’ going back to Dioscorides.

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The overwhelming majority say confusion, delirium and hallucinations are the principal effects with drowsiness, sleep or coma generally following. Dilation of the pupils is such a common effect it gets mentioned in passing in some reports.

Agitation and convulsions requiring the use of restraints or sedatives are reported in around a third of the sources, a similar proportion give death as the outcome of Datura poisoning.

Only a few sources mention the muscle weakness which was supposed to make Datura a useful murder weapon by rendering the victim helpless and memory loss, supposed to help whores get away with robbing their clients, is also a given in a minority of the sources.

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It was believed to have been favoured by professional killers because the victims rapidly lose the wish, or ability, to move and quietly go off to sleep. Note that this runs contrary to most of the actual case reports which talk of agitation and excitement.

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In Mexico, a drink called Ololiuqui or Piule is made by chopping up Datura seeds and soaking them in pulque, the fermented juice of agaves. In the Mexican state of Oaxaca, there was once a group called the ‘Puliero Band’ who would travel to the more remote villages and offer their services, in return for payment, resolving disputes or solving crimes. They would use the Piule to produce intoxication in all the people involved in a case and claim that, under its influence, people were compelled to tell the truth.

On the Indian subcontinent and Russia it was known as “knockout drops”, which thieves and prostitutes used to knock out their victims. So well known was this effect that Christoval Acosta, who was in India in 1578, wrote that Hindu whores gave it to their patrons because ‘these mundane ladies are such mistresses and adepts in the use of the seed that they gave it in doses corresponding to as many hours as they wish their poor victims to be unconscious or transported’.

It may be that the hallucinations induced led the poor fools who woke up penniless to believe they had spent their money on exciting ‘extras’.

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Henry Sapiecha

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