Skip to main content

Capsaicin, an active ingredient in pepper sprays, increases the lethality of cocaine


Since 1992, California police have been using pepper sprays containing oleoresin capsicum (OC) as a nonlethal method to subdue delirious or violent individuals. Capsaicin is a primary ingredient in OC spray. From January 1993 to June 1995, at least 20 deaths in California were associated with OC and stimulant drug (cocaine, amphetamines, or ephedrines) exposure. Based on this background, we hypothesized a direct potentiation of cocaine toxicity by capsaicin. We performed animal experiments and also reviewed human data involving capsaicin and stimulants. The lethal effects of capsaicin administered with cocaine (both compounds administered intraperitoneally) were assessed in 14 groups of 20–40 male mice. Capsaicin at 10 mg/kg increased the lethality of cocaine in mice dosed at 60 mg/kg from 13% to 53% (P < 0.01) and for cocaine at 75 mg/kg from 53% to 90% (P < 0.001). Data from 26 autopsy and police reports from incidents in which death occurred after OC exposure were retrospectively analyzed for demographics, ethnicity, underlying disease, cause of death, and toxicology. All human deaths occurred in delirious and combative males, and 79% of these deaths occurred 1 h or less after OC exposure. Data indicated the presence of stimulants including cocaine in as many as 19 out of 26 deaths: 9 involved methamphetamine, 6 cocaine, 3 methamphetamine plus cocaine, and 1 pseudoephedrine. The animal experiments together with the human retrospective analysis support the idea that exposure to OC spray in cocaine-intoxicated individuals potentiates cocaine lethality.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. Busker RW, van Helden HP (1998) Toxicologic evaluation of pepper spray as a possible weapon for the Dutch police force: risk assessment and efficacy. Am J Forensic Med Pathol 19:309–316

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  2. Steffee CH, Lantz PE, Flannagan LM, Thompson RL, Jason DR (1995) Oleoresin capsicum pepper spray and “in-custody deaths”. Am J Forensic Med Pathol 3:185–192

    Google Scholar 

  3. Pollanen MS, Chiasson DA, Cairns JT, Young JG (1998) Unexpected death related to restraint for excited delirium: a retrospective study of deaths in police custody and in the community. Can Med Assoc J 158:1603–1607

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. O’Halloran RL, Lewman LV (1993) Restraint asphyxiation in excited delirium. Am J Forensic Med Pathol 14:289–295

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  5. Itzhak Y (1994) Blockade of sensitization to the toxic effects of cocaine in mice by nitric oxide synthase inhibitors. Pharmacol Toxicol 74:162–166

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  6. Kłys M, Rojek S, Kowalski P, Rzepecka-Woźniak E (2008) Death of a female addict due to heroin and cocaine overdoses: a case report with multiparameter evaluation. Forensic Toxicol 26:36–40

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Itzhak Y, Stein I (1992) Sensitization to the toxic effects of cocaine in mice is associated with the regulation of N-methyl D-aspartate receptors in the cortex. J Pharmacol Exp Ther 262:464–470

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  8. Glinsukon T, Stitmunnaithum V, Toskulkao C, Buranawuti T, Tangkrisanvinont V (1980) Acute toxicity of capsaicin in several animal species. Toxicon 18:215–220

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  9. Granfield J, Onnen J, Petty CS (1995) Pepper spray and incustody deaths. In: Pepper spray evaluation project, science and technology. International Association of Chiefs of Police, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, pp 1–5

    Google Scholar 

  10. Harris DS, Boxenbaum H, Everhart ET, Sequeira G, Mendelson JE, Jones RT (2003) The bioavailability of intranasal and smoked methamphetamine. Clin Pharmacol Ther 74:475–486

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  11. Mendelson J, Mello NK (1996) Management of cocaine abuse and dependence. N Engl J Med 334:965–972

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  12. Volkow ND, Wang GJ, Fischman MW, Foltin RW, Fowler JS, Abumrad NN, Vitkun S, Logan J, Gatley SJ, Pappas N, Hitzemann R, Shea CE (1997) Relationship between subjective effects of cocaine and dopamine transporter occupancy. Nature 386:827–830

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  13. Muller C, Carey R, Huston J (2003) Serotonin as an important mediator of cocaine’s behavioral effects. Drugs Today 39:497–511

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  14. Hernandez YM, Raczkowski VF, Dretchen KL, Gillis RA (1996) Cocaine inhibits sympathetic neural activity by acting in the central nervous system and at the sympathetic ganglion. J Pharmacol Exp Ther 277:1114–1121

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  15. Karch SB (2005) Cocaine cardiovascular toxicity. South Med J 98:794–799

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  16. Olajos EJ, Salem H (2001) Riot control agents: pharmacology, toxicology, biochemistry and chemistry. J Appl Toxicol 21:355–391

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to John E. Mendelson.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Mendelson, J.E., Tolliver, B.K., Delucchi, K.L. et al. Capsaicin, an active ingredient in pepper sprays, increases the lethality of cocaine. Forensic Toxicol 28, 33–37 (2010).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Capsaicin
  • Riot control
  • Pepper spray
  • Cocaine
  • Amphetamines
  • Lethality