Truth drugs have been used for over 80 years


New Delhi : The use of truth drugs by investigative agencies has been prevalent for over 80 years, especially in the US, even as India’s Supreme Court Wednesday declared forcible narcoanalysis “an unwarranted intrusion of personal liberty”.

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The history of truth serums began with a woman in childbirth in small town Texas when a doctor working on her case observed that an alkaloid drug could lead to use in the interrogation of criminals.

Robert House, an obstetrician, had administered scopolamine, a drug which blocks certain signals in the central nervous system, to a woman who had just given birth. Despite being under its influence, she was able to answer questions put to her harried husband with ease.

House lobbied that scopolamine could be administered to make a person answer truthfully, which he demonstrated on two prisoners who were successfully exonerated. This was published in the Texas State Journal of Medicine in September 1922 in “The Use of Scopolamine in Criminology”.

In the following decades, scopolamine was used by investigators in certain cases in the US with mixed results. In one case in 1924, the suspect confessed to a series of murders under the influence of the drug and accepted it after the effect had worn off. But in another case in Hawaii, the confession was retracted after the drug effect wore off.

There continued to be sporadic use of scopolamine, but as it had several side effects like hallucination and blurred vision, it was eventually replaced by sodium thiopental and sodium amytal, both rapid acting barbiturates.

But due to the unreliability of the confession, the courts often did not admit testimony based on the drug’s use. However, as per a 2004 Stanford Law Review article, the use of truth serums is not criminal, per se, under the American legal framework.

The intelligence community then became interested in the use of the ‘truth serum’ in interrogation, culminating in the CIA starting a secret programme called MK-Ultra to understand the effect of drugs or truth serums and behaviour modification in the 1950s.

There had been a lot of clinical research on these ‘truth serums’ during the period of the 1940s to 1960s, but none of them found that these drugs could get access to information which could be obtained when the subject was not under influence and had complete validity.

In the 1960s, Charles Townsend went to a US court asking for the overturning of a conviction of murder as the confession was obtained under the influence of truth serum. The US Supreme Court adjudged in 1963, “It is difficult to imagine a situation in which a confession would be less the product of a free intellect, less voluntary, than when brought about by a drug having the effect of a truth serum.”

The public mood against the truth serum became more critical when Frank Olson, a participant in the CIA secret programme MK-Ultra who was under the psychedelic drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), jumped from a hotel window.

In 1977, US congressional hearings brought to light the MK-Ultra and also a lot of abuses in the system.

While in the US, the use of the truth serum died down, it continued to be used in Russia during interrogation. The erstwhile Soviet intelligence agency KGB allegedly developed a drug to ‘loosen’ the tongue and it was mostly used to test the trustworthiness of their own officials.

Interestingly, the Czech secret police were using scopolamine, the original truth serum drug, to keep tabs on anti-Communist activists during the Soviet era.

The interest in truth drugs had again emerged among US security agencies over the interrogation of terrorists related to the 9/11 investigations. However, senior US officials denied the use of drugs in the interrogation of terrorists, especially of inmates of Guantanamo Bay prison.