Pepper spray and cocaine – a lethal mix?

Recent research in mice has shown that an interaction between cocaine and the active ingredient of CS spray, capsaicin, may result in death.  CS spray (more commonly known as pepper spray) is used by police forces the world over, including New Zealand, as a non-lethal weapon to assist with arrest and incapacitate the person being sprayed.
I’ve encountered the use of CS spray in several cases, all of them alcohol-related but none of them involving fatalities.  Apparently, the presence of capsaicin makes smaller amounts of cocaine more lethal, reports New Scientist (Cocaine and pepper spray – a lethal mix?). It must be remembered however that the research involved mice who were injected with cocaine and capsaicin, whereas in humans the capsaicin is sprayed into the face at a variable time after the cocaine had been taken.

As is often the case with studies involving animals, the results do not necessarily translate directly to humans. However, should there be found to be any definitive correlation between human deaths and the use of CS spray after someone has taken cocaine, the long-term future of the use of CS spray by Police does not look rosy. The New Scientist article also indicates that review was undertaken of 26 deaths that occurred between 1993 and 1995 of people who died shortly after being subdued with pepper spray. 19 had evidence of psychostimulant drugs in the blood and nine had cocaine. Toxicologists are, of course, interested in the results, which may be the result of interactions between the drug and capsaicin in the brain but, as with all good research, further information is needed particularly if there is a push to have the spray banned as a non-lethal, law enforcement weapon. I also assume that someone in the States would want to sue someone else if research proves a link between deaths, cocaine use and CS spray used by a Police officer.

Despite suggestions that, just in case there is an adverse interaction, CS spray not be used on people who have taken cocaine, it begs the question that what Police officer is going to stop and ask a struggling, defensive, aggressive member of the public whether or not they’ve taken cocaine? Practicality says the opportunity for such questions doesn’t always exist – and even if it did, anyone with any sense is not going to admit to a member of the law enforcement agency that they’ve taken an illegal drug, even if the question is supposed to be for their own good.

Let’s wait and see the outcome because someone somewhere has got funding to research this. If the results are against the continued use of CS spray, I guess each country will then need to undertake its own review before making a decision.

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