Breaking the silence

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A look behind the culture of the date-rape drug

Sarah McMahon-Sperber
The Concordian (Concordia University)

MONTREAL (CUP) — There’s something about the primal quality of the sound made by someone in real, raw pain. It’s like that of a child who has no way of understanding the source of the pain it feels, and whose cry resonates with undertones of confusion and frustration.

It was that cry that kept me frantic and glued to my friend’s side as she crouched on the sidewalk with her head resting on the bumper of a stranger’s car. About an hour before, she had come barging into the bathroom to let me know things were not OK. Something was wrong. We had been at a party hosted by the University of Quebec for less than an hour and had one drink each.

Something wasn’t matching up.

Her symptoms escalated. She wasn’t coherent, couldn’t walk, stand, or even sit up, and was refusing to pull her head out of the plastic bag we had given her in case she felt sick. Fear was setting in.

Hours later, as I stood in her living room with the first rays of sun making their way across the apartment walls and listened to her whimper in the adjoining room, I reflected on my own experience. This was not the first time I had been in this situation, but last time it was me who had been unconscious and waking up with no memory of the night before.

My father had been the one to pick me up three years before, drugged by a stranger and unconscious on the bathroom floor of an isolated restaurant in downtown Ottawa. He was also the first to hear the panic in my voice as my friend’s condition escalated.

Well-trained by the call he had received from my friends when they had found me, my father calmly tried to soothe me and make sense of the situation.

Were her reactions the same as mine? I had no way of knowing, as I have no recollection of the evening I was drugged. I can picture the friends I had been dancing with that night and vividly recall the sound of Madonna blaring from the bar’s speakers.

But then the screen goes blank.

My own experience was no use, as I grappled with feelings of helplessness and my own inability to stop my friend’s pain. Should I be calling for help? Was she going to be OK? How could I have let this happen to her? We should have been more responsible.

Thankfully, we had been responsible. She was safe, just as I had been.

Months later, I realized this is one of the reasons there has not been enough dialogue on this topic. Many of those who have been drugged were smart and responsible enough to develop strategies that prevented the extreme from happening. Therefore, we quickly dismiss the abuse, say “that could have been worse,” keep our heads down, and try to forget it ever happened.

That same night, at least two other attendees reported having been drugged after I posted an inquisitive message on the event page. And, as we crouched on the sidewalk for nearly an hour, waiting for our ride, both security and partygoers attested to having seen quite a few girls leave in a similar state at the beginning of the evening.

Dissecting the drug

What is the biggest challenge in fighting the dangers of what has come to be commonly known as the “date-rape drug?” Pharmaceutical intern Christian Bordeleau said it’s the complete lack of a standard recipe or ingredient combination.

“The other thing people really need to know is there is really no antidote or way to get it out of your system, if not naturally with time,” he explained.

If bought on the streets or from an unknown dealer, the date-rape drug is usually a mishmash of ingredients. It can contain gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB), methylenedioxymethamphetamines (MDMA), speed, and other miscellaneous fillers that reduce purity and concentration while increasing profit – including the common household cleaner Comet.

As a member of the amphetamines family, MDMA has a stimulating effect on the brain. This results in arousal of the senses, possible hallucinations, and a substantial lowering of inhibitions, along with feelings of empathy and well-being. Ecstasy, which is often a wide-variety of different drugs, combines the reactions listed for MDMA with the wakefulness, energy, appetite loss, and intense focus of speed. But, in most cases of drugging or recreational misuse, GHB shows up as the main perpetrator.

GHB is actually produced naturally by the body in tiny doses, although its biological utility has yet to be determined. Through the years, it has been used for many purposes including as a general anesthetic and as a way to augment muscular mass. The physical effects of the synthetic GHB, now seen on the streets, are highly dependent on the doses given and the user’s metabolism. Taking between one to two grams can lead to reduced anxiety, lowered inhibitions, a feeling of drowsiness, trouble co-ordinating movements, and slight sedation, resulting in a muted sense of pain and body awareness. Low does of GHB produce similar effects to that of alcohol.

When a strong dose of two to four grams is consumed, you can enter a hypnotic state that creates a disconnect between your physical understanding of your environment and your capacity to consciously process that information. It is at this point that you could, for example, physically understand you are being led to another location without being able to process the fact the location is unknown and the person at your side is a complete stranger.

Ultimately, if you take over four grams, you face the possibility of general anesthesia similar to a comatose state. Add alcohol to the mix, and it is the equivalent of doubling or tripling every drink you consume. The body starts eliminating the drug from its system after four to six hours, but alcohol consumption significantly stretches out the process. The average dose sold on the streets is about 2.5 grams and costs approximately $15.

Blaming the victim

So, who can we point the finger at? The chances of identifying the person who gave the drugs are slim to none, given the speed at which it can be slipped in a drink and the fact it is nearly impossible to taste once combined with juice or alcohol. So, we go looking for the dealers.

C.J.* is a drug dealer familiar with the various components and effects of the rape drug. According to him, there is no real way to gauge the reason a person might be buying the drug.

“Your general knowledge of the person is a good indication,” he said.

He admitted, though, there is no way of being certain they are purchasing for consenting, recreational use.

So, why then is the dialogue on this issue so limited, given how extensive its use has become? Whether it is confusion about the drug’s effects, shame, mixed reactions from friends or social stigmas that lead us to believe the victim was somehow irresponsible, there seems to be many reasons to stay silent.

Gabrielle Turner, 23, was drugged at a small party consisting of only friends and acquaintances. The reaction she got when trying to talk to the friend who had hosted the evening was dismissive, to say the least.

“She kind of giggled at my supposed attempts to cover up my low alcohol tolerance,” she said. “And then she asked me who I realistically thought would have done such a thing.”

Turner, who was studying interior design at the time, has hardly spoken of that incident in the three years since it happened. After the initial reaction she received, Turner was wary about discussing it.

For Anne-Charlotte Demarle, the reactions she received were quite different.

The 22-year-old French student was visiting friends she had made while studying in Montreal, when her evening at the University of Quebec party went off track. As a self-described moderate drinker, she had a single glass of wine before heading out for the celebrations, and the equivalent of less than a drink during the five to six hours she apparently spent at the party. Friends, she said, related the bulk of this information to her, seeing as most of the evening has escaped her mind completely.

“I kind of, but hardly, remember looking at my watch around 1 a.m., but according to my friends we left between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m.,” she said. “I have no recollection whatsoever of the taxi ride home and the next day, when I woke up, I was in the worst pain I have been in my life.”

Demarle described being extremely ill until well past 6 p.m. the next day. She remembered connecting the dots when she was told another friend who had attended the party had been in the same state. When she recounted her ordeal to family and friends, her story was met with anger, fear, and disgust towards the person who had drugged her.

But as Turner’s case shows, not all victims are so lucky to find a sympathetic ear.

In a culture so deeply engrained in excessive consumption, many drugging stories are met with intense skepticism and doubt. With drugging often seen, though rarely used, as the perfect excuse for someone who refuses to accept the fact they drank irresponsibly, it takes only a few dismissive reactions for a victim to fall into silence.

As I related the events of that evening to people around me, I was astonished to see how many were quick to tell me I was exaggerating, that it was no big deal. My friend was safe and that was all that mattered – let it rest. Another common response was a bombardment of questions about just how much she had had to drink and what kind of crowd we had chosen to spend the evening with. Call me naive, but this seemed beside the point.

Preventing the abuse

Being drugged is a serious allegation to make, as are claims related to the more extreme results of drugging, such as assault.

“To be fair, I get where a lot of people were coming from when they, at first, weren’t sure whether I was being dramatic or telling the truth,” Turner said. “But once someone you know, and whose judgment you trust, tells you they are being serious, no more questions should be asked. Friends and family then need to listen and be supportive.”

Fear of judgment should no longer be a key player in this discussion. Education, along with communication, is one of the greatest tools in teaching individuals to distinguish the symptoms of alcohol abuse from those of rape-drug toxicity.

“I could never thank my friends enough for staying with and by me throughout the whole evening,” Demarle said.

Though she acknowledged it has been said a million times, the recurring and slightly predictable moral of the story is one she said really does apply.

“Keep an eye on your drink, the other on your friends, and make sure you always leave with every member of the group you arrived with,” she said.

According to C.J, whose male friend slept with a drugged stranger, one of the biggest lessons he learned is to always have someone to call.

“Make sure you always have the number of someone who has your back,” he said. “No matter how bad of a situation you are in, or whether it is your fault or not, everyone needs to have that one person who will show up and take care of the situation without asking too many questions right away.”

He also advised making sure other people around know who that person is.

For my friend, that person was her boyfriend. For myself, it was my father. And someday, we might become the person a loved one chooses to turn to.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy

Alcohol is to blame, scientists say

Dietrich Neu
Features Editor

The skepticism McMahon-Sperber and her friends faced when discussing their experiences being drugged is something that extends beyond their social circles; it is a view shared by several scientists around the world.

A study conducted at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland concluded  alcohol is the most common contributor to date-rape in the world – not drugs such as GHB, Rohypnol, and Ketamine.

From 1999 to 2005, scientists tested alleged date-rape victims for drugs commonly thought of to aid in sexual assault. The study found victims had an average of three times the legal driving limit for alcohol. In addition, no traces of the popular date-rape drugs were found.

Though several other drugs were detected, scientists at Ulster claim many of them were prescription or recreational drugs and, although they could be used to “spike” a drink, they could have also been taken willingly or prescribed. The scientists involved in the study were quick to point out many of the most popular date-rape drugs are quickly metabolized by the body and might have already been removed prior to testing.

“This research confirms the findings of other studies in the UK, U.S., and Australia that alcohol is a major contributor to vulnerability to sexual assault in social situations and acquaintance rape,” said Dr. Janet Hall, a physician who has studied the findings at the University of Ulster. “Further study is now required to give a more accurate picture of the involvement of alcohol and drugs in cases of alleged sexual assault.”

In addition to the study in Northern Ireland, research at Wrexham Maelor Hospital in the UK is pointing the finger at the victims themselves, claiming it is more likely they use “spiking” as an excuse to cover up for binge drinking.

The study, published in the Emergency Medicine Journal, also tested alleged victims for common drugs such as GHB, Rohypnol, and Ketamine. The results again came up negative for all three in every case reviewed during the 12-month study.

The findings at Wrexham Maelor point to excessive alcohol consumption as the only consistent similarity amongst alleged victims. The study also notes although all of the test subjects denied using recreational drugs, such as cocaine and MDMA, one fifth of them tested positive.

The study claims most of the reports of “drink spiking” are actually the result of people misjudging how much alcohol they really consumed.

Dr. Hywel Hughes, an associate specialist involved in the study, explained the finding to the London Evening Standard: “This study confirmed our suspicion that most of the patients with suspected drink-spiking would test negative for drugs. No Ketamine, GHB, or Rohypnol was found in the samples, which suggests they are not commonly used to spike drinks There seems to be greater awareness about the dangers of binge-drinking, which is where the emphasis should stay. But claiming their drink has been spiked may be used as an excuse by patients who have become incapacitated after the voluntary consumption of excess alcohol.”

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