Pepper Spray & Cocaine Could Be a Lethal Combo

By Brett Israel | November 16, 2009 7:00 am

Pepper_spray_Demonstration-Cocaine combined with capsaicin, an active ingredient in pepper spray, can be deadly, if research in mice is any indication.

In the early 1990s, anecdotes of people dying after being doused with pepper spray puzzled researchers, until autopsies revealed many were on cocaine at the time. To look for a link between the two substances, a research team injected cocaine, capsaicin or both at once into the abdomens of several groups of about 30 mice. Injections allowed them to control the dose of capsaicin the mice received, which wouldn’t have been possible if the mice were simply sprayed [New Scientist]. Equal doses of cocaine plus capsaicin killed about half the mice, compared to cocaine alone, which killed just a few. And a dose of cocaine high enough to kill half the mice on its own killed up to 90 percent when combined with capsaicin.

The researchers admit they don’t really know how capsaicin and cocaine combine to make a lethal cocktail, but their research shows an interesting correlation. During their research, they reviewed 26 autopsy reports and Californian police reports between 1993 and 1995 of people who died shortly after being subdued with pepper spray. They noted that 19 of them had evidence of psychostimulants in their blood and nine had cocaine. [The team] suspects that a fatal interaction takes place in the brain between capsaicin and psychostimulants [New Scientist].

Toxicologists not involved with the research say the results are certainly curious, but of course more research is necessary before jumping to conclusions. For one, the mice were injected with capsaicin while humans inhale pepper spray, so it’s not clear how much capsaicin is absorbed into a person’s bloodstream. Despite not knowing the underlying mechanism, scientists say their research, published in the journal Forensic Toxicology, suggests that police forces may need to rethink their use of pepper spray as a non-lethal weapon.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons / Stefan Kühn

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Technology
  • JMW

    I don’t want to come across all Republican and everything, but I certainly don’t want to see police officers get handcuffed more than they are already. These men and women put their lives on the line for the rest of us.

    What are they going to do? The following is simply not a realistic scenario:

    Officer approaches suspect, pulls out clipboard. “Excuse me, sir, have you been using cocaine today?”

    Puzzled perp stops, frowns, shakes head.

    Officer makes tick mark on clipboard. “Do you have a history of heart trouble or paranoia?”


    Officer makes another tick mark on clipboard. “So that would suggest I’m okay to use pepper spray or a taser –”

    “Hold on a sec,” says Officer’s partner. “You forgot to ask about anxiety attacks.”

    “Oh, right. Any anxiety attacks in the past, sir?”

    “Just once.”

    “Oh.” Officer makes tick mark, studies chart. “So the taser is not indicated in this situation. I could use pepper spray, assuming you were telling the truth about not using cocaine today. Wouldn’t you rather come along quietly, sir?”

    Let’s not put unreasonable roadblocks in the way of people who are trying to do their job to protect the rest of us.

  • X

    Totally agree with JMW. If this interaction turns out to be lethal, it’s not the police’s problem.

  • Johnny Costello

    You agree because you are both a**holes

    [Moderator’s note: edited the cuss word]

  • Get Off the Crack,


  • Doug

    Johnny, granted it’s not the best case for someone to get hit with pepper spray and then die, but the alternative would be for police to return to the standard, pre-pepper spray procedure for subduing an uncooperative suspect: beating the living hell out of them with a nightstick. That, erm, procedure carries its own risks, like broken bones, hematomae, and the possibility for death from blunt trauma.

    Also, you have to factor in that some of these folks were brandishing weapons at the police, and had put themselves in a position where the use of deadly force by the police was authorized. In those cases, the cops chose to use pepper spray instead of their service automatics, so they were looking to save a life, only to have things go sideways because of the cocaine in the suspect’s bloodstream.

    I don’t really care for either option, but in the end we have to pick the one least likely to do lasting harm to a person who is resisting a law enforcement official, and to protect the law enforcement officials from possible harm as well.

  • JMW

    Hi, Johnny Costello. A**holes? How so?

  • YouRang

    I don’t know. It seems like a really good incentive to get off the drugs or to stay in other ways on the legal side of the law. We need to broadcast the info that even if you do a really good job of staying in the non-lethal area of drugs, you still can end up dead if you decide to commit an armed felony including resisting arrest.. (Plus I.e. it’s not just police who use pepper spray.)

  • http://- Phil Doran

    Suppose a person is using Zostrix, a rub-on capsaicin cream.

    Then he goes to a dentist who uses a local anaesthetic containing some form of cocaine.

    How safe would that be?

    Should the dentist be warned?

  • Robert E

    I’ll have to agree with JMW and Doug: the risk of dying from pepper spray / taser is a lot less than being shot, and an option the police should continue to have.

  • GM

    Since when did police have to make the choice between using toxic gases and instruments of torture and beat the crap out of someone to subdue them. Properly trained law enforcement officers are suitably equipped to take down a suspect without brutality. Particularly in light of the fact that most of these incidents occur with two or more officers present.
    The death at Vancouver airport of Robert Dziekanski in the company of four officers was avoidable because he was unarmed and not acting overtly aggressively. Evidence shows that emails uncovered the fact that the officers wanted to taser him before they even arrived. They tasered him four times and then stood there and watched him die, a man who committed no crime.
    See for yourself.
    Four police officers can take down a full-grown man without weapons, I don’t care if he is an all-star wrestler on roids. If not, they are gutless and ill-equipped for law enforcement and have no business wearing a badge.

  • deaddrift

    I agree with JMW as well. I also don’t want to came across as some kind of Republican.

  • andrew

    Move to mace… problem solved!

  • lisa lebowski

    What people have been trained, propagandized, to call “police” are quite simply not a police at all. Rather these forces are military occupation forces in all but name. One has only to take an honest look to see this. This development, which has taken place over roughly the past 100 years, ought to be compared with the police of pre-emperial ah-mer-i-ka. People who support constitutional law – which is primarily a set of limitations on government power, might do well to support an honest police – one that swept the streets and picked up the garbage and gave the drunks coffee and chow instead of a beating. While I don’t mind a fella, even a cop, putting a pistol in his pocket, the gun is properly an instrument of the militia, not of the police. Mace? Well, permit it but also allow people to sue the individual who uses it, cop or not. That’s the way it was – a flawed warrant? Sue the cops, as individuals – and win. That’s another problem with the crypto-military “police” – no meaningful civil remedies. All quite illegal under the USC, of course…

  • Heidi

    Does that mean I can’t use my pepper spray to defend myself from a drugged up rapist?

    Seriously, it’s a stupid tax. They’re stupid and they die. Problem solved.

  • Brian Too

    This information is valuable and useful, properly deployed. You don’t have to get all (The Police Are the Greatest Organization On Earth!!), nor is is appropriate to go to (The Police=The Man, Bringing Us Down).

    My concern is that these non-lethal weapons (mainly Tasers and pepper spray) have taken on a role far beyond those of guns. They are viewed as an easy, risk-free move by the officer. The non-lethal systems are sold as alternatives to guns but they get used any time a citizen is being difficult, where guns were never going to be used.

    So how does this work in reality? If a police officer is talking to a citizen and the person is acting disconnected, hyper, or otherwise cannot focus on the conversation taking place, maybe they shouldn’t be sprayed. They’re probably as high as a kite. Not saying this is an absolute rule, just to use a little restraint.

    I want my police department to be smart, well-trained, and flexible. Even when they fail to meet that standard, it’s important to put that out there as the standard we wish for them. And in a well-functioning relationship with society that’s what the police departments want too.

  • SR

    To Doran: Dentists do not use any form of cocaine. Lidocaine, novocaine, etc does not test positive for cocaine.

    I deal with offenders daily. I think the question of whether they were on cocaine or not would be one of the last considerations in whether to use pepper spray.

    All enforcement agencies have a use of force policy and it usually includes some intermediate weapon like pepper spray. If it is used, it is used to prevent an officer from going to the next level of force.


    That guy in the picture is taking it quite well. I especially like that they gave him a weapon should the demonstration get out of hand.

  • lisa lebowski

    When one invests in a narrative myth, such as the absurd notion that these servile militarized servant-class stooges so many people call “police” are somehow necessary or appropriate or beneficial to ordinary people, then one is investing in a belief system that is innacurate. Innaccurate beliefs, when acted upon, generally result in injury…… So, comrades, how’s your job, family, neighborhood, etc doin’ ? Not so swell? Try doing something about it and the first guy to stop you is gunna be ……… a cop. And you know this.

    And, friend Brian, when he repeats the key-phrase “non-lethal weapon”, is repeating an obvious false-hood. These infernal gadgets are lethal – that was the topic of the article above. Language is a primary control tool – think about what you’re saying, about what it means in fact…

  • djleroy

    JMW, You Rang et al.: “staying on the legal side of the law.” Ha, ha. That’s funny. You must not have much awareness of the geometrically increasing criminal code.

  • lowell
  • detox

    More bad science. The control group is too small, and cheating on urine tests is too easy.

  • where to buy zsazsa creme

    Hallo. Gracias, but can you expand the topic? Would it be possible to apply it on an average basis?


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