Truth serum

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Sodium thiopental, marketed as Pentothal Pentothal vintage package - truth serum.jpg
Sodium thiopental, marketed as Pentothal

"Truth serum" is a colloquial name for any of a range of psychoactive drugs used in an effort to obtain information from subjects who are unable or unwilling to provide it otherwise. These include ethanol, scopolamine, 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate, midazolam, flunitrazepam, sodium thiopental, and amobarbital, among others.


Although a variety of such substances have been tested, serious issues have been raised about their use scientifically, ethically and legally. There is currently no drug proven to cause consistent or predictable enhancement of truth-telling. [1] Subjects questioned under the influence of such substances have been found to be suggestible and their memories subject to reconstruction and fabrication. When such drugs have been used in the course of investigating civil and criminal cases, they have not been accepted by Western legal systems and legal experts as genuine investigative tools. [2] In the United States, it has been suggested that their use is a potential violation of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (the right to remain silent). [3] [4] Concerns have also been raised through the European Court of Human Rights arguing that use of a truth serum could be considered a violation of a human right to be free from degrading treatment, [5] or could be considered a form of torture. [6] It has been noted to be a violation of the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture. [7]

"Truth serum" was abused against psychotic patients as part of old, discredited practices of psychiatry and is no longer used. [8] In a therapeutic context, the controlled administration of intravenous hypnotic medications is called "narcosynthesis" or "narcoanalysis". Such application was first documented by Dr. William Bleckwenn. Reliability and suggestibility of patients are concerns, and the practice of chemically inducing an involuntary mental state is now widely considered to be a form of torture. [9] [10]

Active chemical substances

Amobarbital, one of the chemical compounds that can be used as a truth serum Amobarbital.svg
Amobarbital, one of the chemical compounds that can be used as a truth serum

Sedatives or hypnotics that alter higher cognitive function include ethanol, scopolamine, 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate, potent short or intermediate acting hypnotic benzodiazepines such as midazolam, flunitrazepam, and various short and ultra-short acting barbiturates, including sodium thiopental (commonly known by the brand name Pentothal) and amobarbital (formerly known as sodium amytal). [11] [2] [12]


While there have been many clinical studies of the efficacy of narcoanalysis in interrogation or lie detection, there is dispute whether any of them qualify as a randomized, controlled study, that would meet scientific standards for determining effectiveness. [13] [14] [15] [16]

Use by country


India's Central Bureau of Investigation has used intravenous barbiturates for interrogation, often in high-profile cases. [2] One such case was the interrogation of Ajmal Kasab, the only terrorist captured alive by police in the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India. [17] [18] Kasab was a Pakistani [19] [20] militant and a member of the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group. [21] [22] On 3 May 2010, Kasab was found guilty of 80 offences, including murder, waging war against India, possessing explosives, and other charges. [23] On 6 May 2010, the same trial court sentenced him to death on four counts and to a life sentence on five counts. [24]

The Central Bureau of Investigation also conducted this test on Krishna, a key witness and suspect in the high-profile 2008 Aarushi-Hemraj Murder Case to seek more information from Krishna and also determine his credibility as a witness with key information, yet not known to the investigating authorities. Per unverified various media sources, Krishna had purported to have deemed Hemraj (the prime suspect) as not guilty of Aarushi's murder, claiming he [Hemraj] "treated Aarushi like his own daughter".

On May 5, 2010 the Supreme Court Judge Balasubramaniam in the case "Smt. Selvi vs. State of Karnataka" held that narcoanalysis, polygraph and brain mapping tests were to be allowed after consent of accused. The judge stated: "We are of the considered opinion that no individual can be forced and subjected to such techniques involuntarily, and by doing so it amounts to unwarranted intrusion of personal liberty." [25]

In Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh High Court permitted narcoanalysis in the investigation of a killing of a tiger that occurred in May 2010. The Jhurjhura Tigress at Bandhavgarh National Park, a mother of three cubs, was found dead as a result of being hit by a vehicle. A Special Task Force requested the narcoanalysis testing of four persons, one of whom refused to consent on grounds of potential post-test complications. [26]


In 2004, Novaya Gazeta , with reference to KGB General Oleg Kalugin, published an article that said that since the end of the 1980s the First and Second Directorates of the KGB had used, in exceptional cases and mostly on foreign citizens, a soluble odourless, colourless and tasteless substance code-named SP-117, an improved successor to similar drugs used by the KGB prior, that was effective in making a subject lose control of oneself 15 minutes after intake. [27] Most importantly, a person who would be given, consecutively, two parts of the drug, i.e. both the "dote" and "antidote", would have no recollection of what had occurred in between and feel afterward as though he had suddenly fallen asleep, the preferable way to administer the "dote" being in an alcoholic drink as the latter would serve as a specious explanation of the sudden onset of drowsiness. [27]

Other reports state that SP-117 was just a form of concentrated alcohol meant to be added to alcoholic drinks such as champagne. [28]

According to the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) officer, Alexander Kouzminov, who quit the service in the early 1990s, the officers of SVR′s Directorate S, which runs SVR′s illegals , primarily used the drug to verify fidelity and trustworthiness of their agents who operated overseas, such as Vitaly Yurchenko. [29] According to Alexander Litvinenko, Russian presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin was drugged with the same substance by FSB agents during his kidnapping in 2004. [30]

United States

Scopolamine was promoted by obstetrician Robert Ernest House as an advance that would prevent false convictions, beginning in 1922. He had noted that women in childbirth who were given scopolamine could answer questions accurately even while in a state of twilight sleep, and were oftentimes "exceedingly candid" in their remarks. House proposed that scopolamine could be used when interrogating suspected criminals. He even arranged to administer scopolamine to prisoners in the Dallas County jail. Both men were believed to be guilty, both denied guilt under scopolamine, and both were eventually acquitted. [16] In 1926, the use of scopolamine was rejected in a court case, by Judge Robert Walker Franklin, who questioned both its scientific origin, and the uncertainty of its effect. [12] [2]

The United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS) experimented with the use of mescaline, scopolamine, and marijuana as possible truth drugs during World War II. They concluded that the effects were not much different from those of alcohol: subjects became more talkative but that did not mean they were more truthful. Like hypnosis, there were also issues of suggestibility and interviewer influence. Cases involving scopolamine resulted in a mixture of testimonies both for and against those suspected, at times directly contradicting each other. [2] [31]

LSD was also considered as a possible truth serum, but found unreliable. [2] During the 1950s and 1960s, the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) carried out a number of investigations including Project MKUltra [32] and Project MKDELTA, which involved illegal use of truth drugs including LSD. [33] [31] [34] A CIA report from 1961, released in 1993, concludes:

The salient points that emerge from this discussion are the following. No such magic brew as the popular notion of truth serum exists. The barbiturates, by disrupting defensive patterns, may sometimes be helpful in interrogation, but even under the best conditions they will elicit an output contaminated by deception, fantasy, garbled speech, etc. A major vulnerability they produce in the subject is a tendency to believe he has revealed more than he has. It is possible, however, for both normal individuals and psychopaths to resist drug interrogation; it seems likely that any individual who can withstand ordinary intensive interrogation can hold out in narcosis. The best aid to a defense against narco-interrogation is foreknowledge of the process and its limitations. There is an acute need for controlled experimental studies of drug reaction, not only to depressants but also to stimulants and to combinations of depressants, stimulants, and ataraxics. [16]

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Townsend v. Sain , that confessions produced as a result of ingestion of truth serum were "unconstitutionally coerced" and therefore inadmissible. [35] The viability of forensic evidence produced from truth sera has been addressed in lower courts – judges and expert witnesses have generally agreed that they are not reliable for lie detection. [36]

In 1967, Perry Russo was administered sodium pentothal for interrogation by District Attorney Jim Garrison in the investigation of JFK's assassination. [37]

More recently, a judge approved the use of narcoanalysis in the 2012 Aurora, Colorado shooting trial to evaluate whether James Eagan Holmes's state of mind was valid for an insanity plea. [38] Judge William Sylvester ruled that prosecutors would be allowed to interrogate Holmes "under the influence of a medical drug designed to loosen him up and get him to talk", such as sodium amytal, if he filed an insanity plea. [3] The hope was that a 'narcoanalytic interview' could confirm whether or not he had been legally insane on 20 July, the date of the shootings. [3] It is not known whether such an examination was carried out. [2]

William Shepherd, chair of the criminal justice section of the American Bar Association, stated, with respect to the Holmes case, that use of a 'truth drug' as proposed, "to ascertain the veracity of a defendant's plea of insanity... would provoke intense legal argument relating to Holmes's right to remain silent under the fifth amendment of the US constitution." [3] Discussing possible effectiveness of such an examination, psychiatrist August Piper stated that "amytal's inhibition-lowering effects in no way prompt the subject to offer up true statements or memories." [39] Psychology Today's Scott Linfield noted, as per Piper, that "there's good reason to believe that truth serums merely lower the threshold for reporting virtually all information, both true and false." [39]

See also

Related Research Articles

Sodium thiopental Barbiturate general anesthetic

Sodium thiopental, also known as Sodium Pentothal, thiopental, thiopentone, or Trapanal, is a rapid-onset short-acting barbiturate general anesthetic. It is the thiobarbiturate analog of pentobarbital, and an analog of thiobarbital. Sodium thiopental was a core medicine in the World Health Organization's List of Essential Medicines, but was supplanted by propofol. Despite this, thiopental is listed as an acceptable alternative to propofol, depending on local availability and cost of these agents. It was previously the first of three drugs administered during most lethal injections in the United States, but the US manufacturer Hospira stopped manufacturing the drug and the European Union banned the export of the drug for this purpose. Although thiopental abuse carries a dependency risk, its recreational use is rare.

Project MKUltra CIA program involving illegal experimentation on human subjects (1953–73)

Project MKUltra was the code name of an illegal human experimentation program designed and undertaken by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The experiments were intended to develop procedures and identify drugs such as LSD that could be used in interrogations to weaken individuals and force confessions through brainwashing and psychological torture. MKUltra used numerous methods to manipulate its subjects' mental states and brain functions, such as the covert administration of high doses of psychoactive drugs and other chemicals, electroshocks, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, isolation, and verbal and sexual abuse, in addition to other forms of torture.

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Interrogation Interviews by police, military or intelligence personnel

Interrogation is interviewing as commonly employed by law enforcement officers, military personnel, intelligence agencies, organized crime syndicates, and terrorist organizations with the goal of eliciting useful information, particularly information related to suspected crime. Interrogation may involve a diverse array of techniques, ranging from developing a rapport with the subject to torture.

Sidney Gottlieb American chemist and spymaster

Sidney Gottlieb was an American chemist and spymaster who headed the Central Intelligence Agency's 1950s and '60s assassination attempts and mind-control program, known as Project MKUltra.


Tuinal was the brand name of a discontinued combination drug composed of two barbiturate salts in equal proportions.

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Amobarbital Barbiturate

Amobarbital is a drug that is a barbiturate derivative. It has sedative-hypnotic properties. It is a white crystalline powder with no odor and a slightly bitter taste. It was first synthesized in Germany in 1923. It is considered a short to intermediate acting barbiturate. If amobarbital is taken for extended periods of time, physiological and psychological dependence can develop. Amobarbital withdrawal mimics delirium tremens and may be life-threatening. Amobarbital was manufactured by Eli Lilly and Company in the US under the brand name Amytal in bright blue bullet shaped capsules or pink tablets containing 50, 100, or 200 milligrams of the drug. The drug was also manufactured generically. Amobarbital was widely misused, known as "Blue Heavens" on the street. Amytal, as well as Tuinal, a combination drug containing equal quantities of secobarbital and amobarbital, were both manufactured by Eli Lilly until the late-1990s. However, as the popularity of benzodiazepines increased, prescriptions for these medications became increasingly rare beginning in the mid to late-1980s.

Pharmacological torture is the use of psychotropic or other drugs to punish or extract information from a person. The aim is to force compliance by causing distress, which could be in the form of pain, anxiety, psychological disturbance, immobilization, or disorientation.

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In the post-World War II era, the technique of narcosynthesis was developed by psychiatrists as a means of treating patients who suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder. Narcosynthesis—also called sodium amytal interview, amobarbital interview, or amytal interview—uses a technique of free association as well as dream and transference material during the session as a basis for uncovering relevant topics for later therapeutic discussion.

Torture in the United States includes documented and alleged cases of torture both inside and outside the United States by members of the government, the military, law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies, health care services, and other public organizations.

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Blue 88 was a blue-colored pill that was a mix of calming drugs, mainly barbiturates such as sodium amytal, used to treat American soldiers in the Second World War who suffered from battle fatigue. In most cases, it was used to induce sleep.

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Barbiturate Class of sedative medication derived from barbituric acid

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William Jefferson Bleckwenn was an American neurologist, psychiatrist, and military physician, who was instrumental in developing the treatment known as "narcoanalysis" or "narcosynthesis", also known by the lay term "truth serum".

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  1. Brown, David (20 November 2006). "Some Believe 'Truth Serums' Will Come Back". The Washington Post. Retrieved 4 January 2017.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Rinde, Meir (2015). "Stranger than fiction". Distillations. 1 (4): 16–23. Retrieved 22 March 2018.
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  12. 1 2 Winter, Alison (2012). Memory fragments of a modern history . Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp.  33-. ISBN   9780226902609.
  13. There is some controversy to this point; see IJME debate in Jesani, Amar (Oct–Dec 2006). "Medical professionals and interrogation: lies about finding the 'truth'". Indian Journal of Medical Ethics (Editorial). Mumbai. 3 (4): 116. Archived from the original on 2009-06-11. A PubMed search found 26 references from 1997 to 2001 (or 5.2 publications per year), but in less than five years (2002 to July 2006) the number has more than tripled to 83 or 16.6 publications per year. Many of these are randomised controlled trials. and Jesani, Amar (Jan–Mar 2007). "Misconceptions about narco analysis". Indian Journal of Medical Ethics (Editorial reply). Mumbai. 4 (1): 7–8, discussion 10–1. PMID   18630211. Archived from the original on 2013-07-30. It is true that the number of research publications on lie detection has tripled during 2002-2006. But no material has been produced that can be described as randomised controlled trials.
  14. A simple search: Misquitta, Neville (28 Feb 2011). "Narcoanalysis - spies, lies and truth serum". Psychiatry and Society in Pune (blog). Retrieved 12 Mar 2013. A PubMed search using the MeSH term 'narcotherapy' gives just two articles in the last ten years. There are no randomised control studies - the scientific standard - to demonstrate the reproducibility of results obtained by narcoanalysis for information gathering, abreaction, or lie detection.
  15. Lakshman, Sriram (May 2007). "Narcoanalysis and some hard facts". Frontline. Vol. 24, no. 9. Archived from the original on 2013-03-13. Retrieved 12 Mar 2013. Given the nature of narcoanalysis, it is not possible to get volunteers to facilitate controlled studies. Indirecy quotation from B.M. Mohan
  16. 1 2 3 Bimmerle, George. "Truth" Drugs in Interrogation (PDF). Center for the Study of Intelligence (Technical report). Vol. 5. CIA. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2021-03-20. Retrieved 20 March 2021. The almost total absence of controlled experimental studies of "truth" drugs and the spotty and anecdotal nature of psychiatric and police evidence require that extrapolations to intelligence operations be made with care.
  17. "Mumbai attacks: Militant kept in underwear to prevent suicide". The Daily Telegraph. 8 December 2008.
  18. "Exclusive: The Kasab Confession Part - 1". Archived from the original on 2021-12-11.
  19. The government of Pakistan initially denied that Kasab was a Pakistani citizen, but, in January 2009, it confirmed his citizenship. "Ajmal's Nationality Confirmed". Dawn (Pakistani Newspaper). 8 January 2009. Retrieved 31 January 2012.
  20. "CRIMINAL APPEAL NOS.1899-1900 OF 2011" (PDF). Supreme Court of India. 29 August 2012. Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 January 2013. Retrieved 6 February 2013.
  21. "Planned 9/11 at Taj: Caught Terrorist". Zee News. 29 November 2008. Archived from the original on 25 December 2008.
  22. "Please give me saline". Bangalore Mirror. 29 November 2008. Archived from the original on 2 March 2009. Retrieved 8 February 2014.
  23. "Bombay HC upholds Kasab's death sentence". IBN Live. Archived from the original on 2011-02-22.
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  25. "No narcoanalysis test without consent, says SC". The Times Of India. May 5, 2010. Retrieved May 18, 2012.
  26. P. Naveen (October 23, 2012). "Narco test report throws up zilch". Times of India. Retrieved 2020-01-22.
  27. 1 2 РЫБКИНУ ДАЛИ СП-117? Novaya Gazeta , 15 February 2004.
  28. "Russia's Lab X: poison factory that helped silence Soviets' critics". the Guardian. 9 March 2018.
  29. Alexander Kouzminov Biological Espionage: Special Operations of the Soviet and Russian Foreign Intelligence Services in the West, Greenhill Books, 2006, ISBN   1-85367-646-2 .
  30. Alex Goldfarb and Marina Litvinenko. Death of a Dissident: The Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the Return of the KGB. New York: Free Press, 2007. ISBN   978-1-4165-5165-2.
  31. 1 2 Lee, Martin A.; Shlain, Bruce (1992). Acid dreams: the complete social history of LSD: the CIA, the sixties, and beyond (Rev. Evergreen ed.). New York: Grove Press. ISBN   978-0-8021-3062-4.
  32. "One of the Most Shocking CIA Programs of All Time: Project MKUltra". 2013-09-23. Retrieved 2016-08-18.
  33. "Final report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate: together with additional, supplemental, and separate views". 1976. Retrieved 2014-07-17.
  34. Brown, David (20 November 2006). "Some Believe 'Truth Serums Will Come Back". The Washington Post . A08. Retrieved 4 January 2017.
  35. Townsend v. Sain, Sheriff, et al., 372 U.S. 293, 307-308
  36. See for example State v. Pitts, 116N.J.580 (The Supreme Court of New Jersey1989)("Three experts ... agreed that sodium-amytal-induced interviews are not considered scientifically reliable for the purpose of ascertaining "truth."").
  37. [ bare URL PDF ]
  38. P. Solomon Banda; Dan Elliott (11 Mar 2013). "Judge OKs medication for Colorado shooting suspect". Yahoo! News . AP.
  39. 1 2 Lennard, Natasha (March 13, 2013). "James Holmes and the ethics of "truth serum"". Salon. Retrieved 4 January 2017.