‘……You know how it is: you’re out at night looking for kicks and somebody’s passing around a weaponized hallucinogen’. This line from the 2005 film Batman Begins, as with most Hollywood creations, manages to detach its words from its action by suspending the willingness to listen to the quiet voice of reason; exemplified by the genesis of the character Dr. Jonathon Crane (‘Scarecrow’) within the film. Dr. Crane eventually employs a ‘weaponized hallucinogen’ and we are led to believe (by subtle cinematography) that such a potent psychoactive is derived from a ‘blue flowering plant’. In the film this toxin can be administered in aerosol form and has a near instantaneous onset.
A simple coincidence? Or a slip of the imagination perhaps? But a blue perennial flowering plant with powerful psychoactive properties hints strongly to the prime suspect, in this case, being Salvia divinorum. Yet what could be a less useful procedure for the procurement of the psychoactive effects of Salvia than a liquid based spray? Why not have the Scarecrow wave a picture of Salvia at his victims and be done with it? Salvia is a plant best taken chewed as a quid or brewed into a tea if fresh, or smoked at a high temperature if prepared dry. One thing in the Scarecrow’s favour, however, is that Salvinorum A, the active ingredient within Salvia, is the most potent naturally occurring hallucinogen known to science, with an active dose being as low as 200 micrograms.
So what chemical compound could be the guilty suspect for Scarecrow’s ‘fear gas’? I think any decent ethnobotanist would immediately look to that rather infamous family of plants known as Solanaceae. Within its ranks, amongst the potatoes, tomatoes, bell and chilli peppers, sits a selection of flora straight out of the witches herb rack; Datura, Belladonna, Mandragoria, Hyoscyamus (Henbane) and Brugmansia (Angel’s Trumpet). Deliriants, as in discussion here, could make a very promising weapons-grade hallucinogen, if the biochemical research is pushed in the appropriate direction. Looking back through military history it is possible to find reference to Hannibal’s army using Belladonna as a weapon against their enemies in 184 BC (1). Even more famously, in 1672, the Bishop of Munster used Belladonna laced ‘explosive and incendiary devices’ in his attempt to take the city of Groningen.
In short, what all of these members of Solanaceae have in common is a natural disposition to produce an alkaloid know as atropine as a defensive biochemical compound. Atropine is known as a competitive antagonist of the acetylcholine receptors. This translates into meaning that the compound will compete with the neurotransmitter acetylcholine for receptor sites, and therefore block acethylcholine’s natural effects. These natural effects include (amongst a vast array) muscle excitation, learning, memory functions and secretion production (such as saliva and sweat). An interesting quirk of atropine biochemistry is that it is a known natural antidote to the effects of muscarine, the psychoactive ingredient of Amanita muscaria. One could almost say that if the Fly agaric mushroom, or muscarine, is Jesus (2) then the Solanaceae, which produce atropine, are Lucifer.
It was in the late 1940s that the biochemistry of atropine was pushed toward the direction of laboratory based development in the search for a weapon, by the company Hoffman-La Roche. Akin to a terrible phoenix, in 1951, BZ was born (3). BZ was odourless and could be readily deployed in an aqueous based spray. It had a half-life of 3-4 weeks in humid air and could easily survive longer within soil. The dose required to incapacitate half of the subjects it was administered to was 6.2 micrograms per kilogram (mcg/kg). Atropine, to achieve the same 50% incapacitation result, needs a dose of 500 mcg/kilogram. If we reflect on this we become startlingly aware that the devil really does live within the technicalities. At the 6.2 mcg/kg dose the onset of BZ was 35 minutes and the effects lasted between 36 to 96 hours. It becomes clear from these figures that the Scarecrow’s ‘fear gas’ is based on BZ and not Salvia after all.
Subsequently BZ never reached the battlefield for the US army and all the US supplies were destroyed by the 1980s , although reports indicate (4) that Iraq had a large supply of something called ‘Agent 15’ which is a toxin very similar in biochemistry to BZ. Such a deployment, in battle, is the subject explored in the 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder, wherein BZ is tested on US army soldiers during the Vietnam War. Why it isn’t tested on the captured Vietcong ‘enemy’ instead isn’t really discussed, however the film does quote the German theologian Eckhart von Hochheim , of the thirteenth century, very effectively: ‘The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won’t let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they’re not punishing you, they’re freeing your soul. So, if you are frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you have made your peace, then devils are really angels, freeing you from earth’.
This, as a metaphor for a truly deep psychedelic experience is quite pertinent. It is of my opinion that such a quote doesn’t quite cover the effects of a deliriant, such as BZ, or its weaker cousin atropine, however. That charge must fall to that master of metaphor: the Bard. In The Tempest, Act II, scene II, Shakespeare really manages to invoke the feeling of a natural compound induced delirium, where hallucinations and illusions become interwoven with the reality of nature and our subsequent archetypal reservations about the beasts of darkness. Such reservations are given rise to by the cerebral manipulation of folk psychology, as it triggers our evolved animate agent detection system, which responds to fragmentary information about the perception of lurking agents within the shadows—hence the linkage between madness, darkness, deliriants and psychoactives:
All the infections that the sun sucks up
From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall, and make him
By inch-meal a disease! His spirits hear me,
And yet I needs must curse. But they’ll nor pinch,
Fright me with urchin-shows, pitch me i’ th’ mire,
Nor lead me, like a firebrand, in the dark
Out of my way, unless he bid ’em; but
For every trifle are they set upon me;
Sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me,
And after bite me; then like hedgehogs which
Lie tumbling in my barefoot way, and mount
Their pricks at my footfall; sometime am I
All wound with adders, who with cloven tongues
Do hiss me into madness.
1) A History of Chemical and Biological Weapons – Edward M.Spiers (Reaktion Books).
2) The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross – John M. Allegro (Gnostic research & publishing).
3) Paradise Lost: The Psycho Agents, CBW Conventions Bulletin. Issue 71. May 2006.
4) Agent 15 Poisoning http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/833238-overview