The Burrow: Veritaserum and Controlled Substances in the Magical World

by Stuart C

In the course of the Harry Potter story, we have been introduced to the potion Veritaserum on several occasions; but we have actually seen it administered only once, to Crouch Jr., at the end of GoF. Snape threatens Harry with it on one occasion; Umbridge attempts to administer it secretly to Harry in OoTP (not knowing Snape provided her with fake serum), and threatens it again at the end of Book 5. Yet only one time do we actually get to see its effects–when Dumbledore doses Crouch, Jr.

We know, too, that the Ministry of Magic strictly regulates the application of Veritaserum. Dumbledore, who demonstrates little patience with Ministry bureaucracy when the need is urgent, doesn’t hesitate to give Crouch Jr. the truth serum. Given the circumstances and Harry’s tale of Voldemort’s rebirth, time is of the essence and Dumbledore must discover what Crouch knows as quickly as possible. Umbridge, of course, has no scruples about Ministry regulations when it comes to her unbalanced quest to ruin Harry and his allies. But why is Veritaserum so srictly controlled? What are its uses and effects?

We have seen countless examples of controlled substances in the magical world, as well as strict regulations for the use of a multitude of spells, especially the Unforgivable Curses. The Ministry carefully regulates practically everything in the magical realm: restrictions on underage magic, OWLs and NEWTs, licenses for certain forms of magic, trade in magical substances and creatures, the Floo Network, etc. Lest we be too hard on the Ministry, it should be noted that there is good reason to regulate the practice of magic; one has only to look at the cases that come into St. Mungo’s or the tragic death of Luna Lovegood’s mother to see why.

To understand the reasons behind the tight restrictions on the use of Veritaserum, it is helpful to compare the use of this potion with the Unforgivable Curses. As we all know, J.K. is a great defender of human rights and the importance of free will. Other editorialists have pointed out why the Unforgivable Curses are forbidden: the Cruciatus Curse inflicts tortuous pain, the Imperius Curse deprives one of free will, and the Killing Curse destroys life. The only time the Ministry has ever permitted the use of these curses is against the Death Eaters at the height of Voldemort’s reign of terror. Even then, many like Dumbledore thought such actions to be wrong, since it compromised the very principle that led to the curses’ regulation in the first place. Dumbledore is a man who knows how to love his enemies, seeking their redemption rather than their destruction.

Veritaserum is in a category not unlike the Unforgivable Curses. The potential for abuse is great. Essentially it deprives a person of their free will in responding to interrogation. Naturally, it has its legitimate uses, as Dumbledore knows, but on the whole poses a great danger if used indiscriminately. Information that ought to be concealed may be brought to light before the wrong people. The bottom line: truth can be a dangerous thing.

Nevertheless, Veritaserum also has the limitation of not really providing the truth itself. Because it is administered to a person, only what that person perceives as true will come out of their mouth. If one were to take everything that is admitted under the influence of Veritaserum as the absolute truth, terrible errors could occur, just as we are often mistaken in our own perceptions of things. Imagine for a moment that at his trial Karkaroff had named Snape as a Death Eater under the influence of Veritaserum instead of as a bargaining chip. If the Ministry thought Veritaserum an infallible means of producing truth, Dumbledore’s intervention on Snape’s behalf would probably have been in vain. However, the Ministry knows that Veritaserum is not infallible, but can only provide truth about what a person knows or believes to be true.

There is also the moral question of what one has a right to know and how. If I were to wander into an Edinburgh coffeehouse and find a sheaf of papers containing the whole outline of the Harry Potter series accidentally left there by one J.K. Rowling, I doubt I could resist the temptation to read it before returning it to her. But would someone else be justified in dosing me with Veritaserum simply because millions of fans want to know that same information? Just as the Imperius Curse is unforgivable because it denies an individual free will, so does Veritaserum negate free will by compelling cooperation. To what extent can a confession be forced? Veritaserum is more harmless than the Cruciatus Curse as a form of torture, but morally it is a fine line. Umbridge crossed it when she couldn’t get Veritaserum to force a confession out of Harry, and so she was prepared to resort to the Cruciatus Curse.

Veritaserum, like so many other controlled substances in the magical world, is justly regulated because of its potential harm to oneself or others. Like certain magical elements or creatures, one must really know what one is doing to apply it properly and judiciously, understanding both its potency and its limitations. The indiscriminate use of Veritaserum would wreak havoc. While it would seem to be an easy cure-all for discovering truth, one must remember that it provides us not so much with reliable truth as subjective knowledge.