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|Parts of this article (those related to the lawful and productive use of truth serum) are outdated. (August 2013)|
A "truth serum" is a colloquial name for any of a range of psychoactive medications used to obtain information from subjects who are unable or unwilling to provide it otherwise. Any information from the truth serum report is corroborated by further investigation. They have been used in the course of investigating civil and criminal cases, and for the evaluation of psychotic patients in the practice of psychiatry. That application was first documented by Dr. William Bleckwenn in 1930, and it still has selected uses today. In the latter context, the controlled administration of intravenous hypnotic medications is called "narcosynthesis" or "narcoanalysis." It may be used to procure diagnostically – or therapeutically – vital information, and to provide patients with a functional respite from catatonia or mania.
Sedatives or hypnotics that alter higher cognitive function include ethanol (in vino veritas), scopolamine, 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate, potent short or intermediate acting hypnotic benzodiazepines such as midazolam, flunitrazepam, temazepam, and various short and ultra-short acting barbiturates including sodium thiopental (commonly known as sodium pentothal) and amobarbital (sodium amytal) (see figure at right).
While there have been many clinical studies of the efficacy of narcoanalysis in interrogation or lie detection, there is no agreement that any qualify as randomized controlled studies, the scientific standard for determining such effectiveness.
India's Central Bureau of Investigation has used intravenous barbiturates for interrogation. One such case in which the CBI has used these techniques is the interrogation on Kasab. Kasab was a Pakistani militant and a member of the Lashkar-e-Taiba Islamist group, through which he took part in the 2008 Mumbai attacks in India. Kasab was the only attacker captured alive by police. On 3 May 2010, Kasab was found guilty of 80 offences, including murder, waging war against India, possessing explosives, and other charges. On 6 May 2010, the same trial court sentenced him to death on four counts and to a life sentence on five counts.
On May 5, 2010 the Supreme Court Judge Balasubramaniam in the case "Smt. Selvi vs. State of Karnataka" held that narco, polygraph and brain mapping tests to be allowed after consent of accused. In another case, Madhya Pradesh High Court permitted narco in the investigation of a tiger killing.
A defector from the biological weapons department 12 of the KGB "illegals" (S) directorate (presently a part of Russian SVR service) claimed that a truth serum codenamed SP-117 was highly effective and has been widely used. According to him, "The 'remedy which loosens the tongue' has no taste, no smell, no colour, and no immediate side effects. And, most important, a person has no recollection of having the 'heart-to-heart talk'" and felt afterwards as if they suddenly fell asleep. Officers of the S directorate used the drug primarily to check the trustworthiness of their own illegal agents who operated overseas, including even heroes of the service, such as Vitaly Yurchenko. According to Alexander Litvinenko, Russian presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin was drugged with the same substance by FSB agents during his alleged kidnapping.
Truth serums have been used by the Central Intelligence Agency as seen in the U.S. Army and CIA interrogation manuals declassified by the Pentagon in 1996. In 1963 the US Supreme Court ruled that confessions produced as a result of ingestion of truth serum were "unconstitutionally coerced" and therefore inadmissible. 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.
"Early in [the 20th] century physicians began to employ scopolamine, along with morphine and chloroform, to induce a state of "twilight sleep" during childbirth. A constituent of henbane, scopolamine was known to produce sedation and drowsiness, confusion and disorientation, incoordination, and amnesia for events experienced during intoxication. Yet physicians noted that women in twilight sleep answered questions accurately and often volunteered exceedingly candid remarks. In 1922 it occurred to Robert House, a Dallas, Texas, obstetrician, that a similar technique might be employed in the interrogation of suspected criminals, and he arranged to interview under scopolamine two prisoners in the Dallas county jail whose guilt seemed clearly confirmed. Under the drug, both men denied the charges on which they were held; and both, upon trial, were found not guilty."
"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."
A judge approved the use of narcoanalysis in the trial of the 2012 Aurora shooting to evaluate whether James Eagan Holmes's state of mind is valid for an insanity plea. "Judge William Sylvester ruled that in the event of Holmes pleading insanity his prosecutors would be permitted to interrogate him while he is under the influence of a medical drug designed to loosen him up and get him to talk. The idea would be that such a "narcoanalytic interview" would be used to confirm whether or not he had been legally insane when he embarked on his shooting spree on 20 July last year." The drug "would most likely be a short-acting barbiturate such as sodium amytal." William Shepherd, chair of the criminal justice section of the American Bar Association,... said that the proposed use of a "truth drug" 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."
According to psychiatrist August Piper, "amytal’s inhibition-lowering effects in no way prompt the subject to offer up true statements or memories." Moreover, "Psychology Today’s Scott Linfield noted, 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." "The Supreme Court asserted shortly after 9/11 that terrorism may require "heightened deference to the judgments of the political branches with respect to matters of national security", a statement which could have implications for the use of truth serums.