A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A hard pill to swallow - Irish youth & date rape drugs

Drink spiking is a terrifying concept every young person will be familiar with; the importance of watching your drink and guarding it closely has been rammed home, lest some ill intentioned individual adds their drugs to our drugs for nefarious purpose. This in itself is a deeply uncomfortable thought, and quite understandably drives people to panic. Everyone knows someone with a drink spiking story, a cautionary tale of some creepy individual lacing an innocent drink with some illicit substance, rendering the victim helpless. From the sheer amount of anecdotal warnings and horror stories, it seems like the threat of spiking is real, high and ever increasing. The message seems clear; if you want to protect yourself from date rape, you'll watch your drink.

Media warnings in recent years have harped about the use of Rohypnol and GHB (Gamma-hydroxybutyrate, for those who dislike ambiguity in their chemical nomenclature ) at pubs, clubs and parties for the express purpose of sexual misconduct. And indeed, some of the facts about these drugs seem rather disconcerting; The former is a drug designed to induce muscle relaxation and sleep, and in high enough doses can cause memory loss, the latter is commonly used as an anaesthetic . Both drugs are central nervous system depressants.

Scary stuff. There's just one issue with this scenario; it doesn't seem to be happening. Before I go any further, let me clarify that this statement is not equivocal to saying date rape doesn't occur; sadly it does, and is far too often under reported. What we're specifically interested in determining is just how real and widespread the drink spiking problem seems to be. The best way to do this is to read through the evidence and recorded cases to cut through the media hyperbole and see the realities in front of us. There has been a lot of investigation on the topic, none more so than in our neighbours the United Kingdom. In fact, no fewer than 3 large scale investigations have been undertaken there alone. The procedure goes something like this; a suspected drink spiking case occurs and the victim is taken to hospital, where they are immediately given a blood and urine test to find any traces of date rape drugs like Rohypnol, GHB, Ketamine and any recreational drugs like alcohol, cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy. These tests are performed quickly, before the drugs have time to metabolize and leave the body.

So what have the studies found? Let's start with the biggest study undertaken on drink spiking; in their 2005 paper with the mouthful of a title “Toxicological findings in cases of alleged drug-facilitated sexual assault in the United Kingdom over a 3-year period “ forensic scientists Michael Ham and Fiona Burton analysed 1014 cases of sexual assault where drink spiking had been suspected. The results were clear; the drug most commonly found was alcohol, often in abundant quantities. Close behind that, the study found a large degree of voluntary illicit drugs were co-factors; these included taking ecstasy, cocaine, cannabis, heroin, speed and Ketamine of their own choice. There was also 21 cases in the 1014 where a sedative may have been used, but more often in not in conjunction with alcohol and other recreational drugs meaning self-administration was most likely. There were of course cases where people were given pills without knowing what they were and took them, but this is distinct from the concept of having one's drink unknowingly spiked.

Other studies were broadly similar; a study on drug facilitated sexual assault (DFSA in police lingo) by the Met police between 2004 and 2005 analysed 120 cases and found alcohol the factor in 119 of them, often to dangerous levels. Yet again recreational drugs appeared in the mix. Wrexham Maelor Hospital also undertook a study of 75 cases of suspected drink spiking and found no date rape drugs whatsoever; they did find 65% of the women in the study were double the limit, and 25% were three times over the alcohol limit. Despite all subjects in the study denying illicit drug use, over a fifth tested positive for cocaine and speed; drugs that are not administered by slipping them subtly into drinks. The studies weren't all UK studies of course; there was also an Australian study of 97 patients admitted with alleged drink spiking in 2009; None of them tested positive for date rape drugs. 28% of them had used illicit drugs and again alcohol played the dominant role.

The trend here is very clear; the problem isn't Rohypnol or GHB; it's alcohol. Our culture of binge drinking is endemic. Alcohol action Ireland reports that Irish consumption of alcohol rose 46% between 1987 and 2001, well out of sync with the population rise. Liver damage in young women has rose massively correspondingly. Not only are we culturally drinking ourselves to death, our choice of drink has changed; wine and beer have been replaced in some sections by shorts and mixers; drinks that can be mixed to essentially taste like the mixer while still having a huge alcohol content. Very few would dispute the fact we have terrible judgement and recall of the amount we actually drink. But it seems we're culturally in denial; alcohol is so implicitly tolerated that we'd prefer to find other demons to pin our woes on, even if this means ignoring the evidence. It is so common that it is easy to forget basic facts about it; such as it is one the the most idiosyncratic drugs imaginable; an adverse reaction can happen at any time with any amount, depending on factors we rarely think of, such as amount of food ingested, level of hydration, pre-existing infections or cuts in the stomach / digestive track and so on. People also grossly underestimate the effects of alcohol when mixed with other illicit substances, or even with prescription medicines. For example, alcohol with even a mild legal benzodiazepine (a class of drug that includes many sedatives, hypnotics, anxiolytics, anticonvulsants and muscle relaxants etc) can cause many side severe effects, from increased sedation to poor motor effects to respiratory suppression or even death. Illegal drugs and alcohol have equally potent side effects.

But there is a further social reason we blame date rape drugs in some cases; we don't like to take the blame when those adverse reactions do occur, and it is sometimes easier to pass responsibility onto some unknown agent. As Dr. Hywel Hughes of the Maelor hospital said “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.” These sentiments are echoed by Dr Mark Little of the Australian study; “People don't realise how alcohol affects them, and they often don't remember how much they've drunk or what happened to them, so they think their drink was spiked. It's also more socially acceptable to think their drink was spiked than that they just drank too much”. Despite this, there still seems to be a shirking of blame in some cases; it is worth noting that in that study, despite the in depth toxicological screen and analysis, 38% of the patients continued to maintain their drinks were spiked. But then again, over a quarter of this group lied about or forgot about what other drugs they had taken and the amount they drank. Sometimes when one hears hoof beats, it is actually a horse and not a zebra.

At the risk of sounding sinister, look at DFSA from the point of view of a predator; they want a victim who is pliable, dis-inhibited, perhaps mildly sedated and ideally will not be able to remember events clearly. They certainly could use GBH or Rohypnol, but why would they bother paying large amounts to obtain these restricted and potentially fatal drugs, when alcohol achieves the exact same result without the illegality and potential risk of an alternative date rape drug. It is also far more socially acceptable to ply someone with drink than slip them sedatives, and very hard to distinguish regrettable drunken sex from rape in a court or even in memory, providing a further incentive for a potential predator to use alcohol as his drug of choice over other options which incur more expense and risk. This is an uncomfortable truth but if we're doing to have any truck with reality we have to take it on board.

The problem isn't drink spiking; it's drink itself. And until we learn some modicum of moderation, we will always be putting ourselves in harm's way.


  1. David...this is a nice piece. Driving home the idea of accountability. There is probably a good psychological piece that could follow.

    You carry a rather auspicious title these days, it's nice to see your writing reflect that... :)


  2. I've tried to post this comment four times... Someone doesn't want me to respond to your post!

    In a nutshell - very interesting figures on the actual prevalence of date rape drugs, I guess it's reassuring that they aren't in common use!

    Your last paragraph may be sinister, but it does make its point very well! I would however try and avoid the "blame the victim" trope; while people do put themselves at greater risk of all dangers by drinking, being drunk doesn't qualify as an excuse for taking sexual advantage, and victims in this country get an awful lot of blame (especially when drink is taken, even though that shouldn't matter!) and see very few convictions. I've also seen the point made (very seldom compared to the "Young Irish women at risk of rape because of drinking too much!" articles) that men need to protect themselves too, by not having regrettable drunken sex that could potentially be indistinguishable from rape.

  3. You're absolutely right, the victim is not to blame and I apologise if I came across at any point like that. I merely mean to say that exotic drugs aren't the culprit - common garden ones are. I think both men and women need to be careful. I recall working with the Welfare department at Oxegen last year and men and women showing up totally unsure if they'd had sex the night before. It was an eye opener but one of the big problems with alcohol is it makes it very difficult to gauge what is going on. I guess the point we should take away is don't overdo it!

  4. Good post, David. It shows that people still don't seem to consider alcohol a drug. We've all heard the warnings when on medication of "don't take X when taking Y"; the same applies to ethanol mixed with other drugs, whether illegal or otherwise. Mix it with cocaine, and you get an extremely toxic substance; mix with cannabis, and you can get very high levels of muscular sedation; mix with caffeine, and you have an increased risk of heart trouble.

    (Also, ketamine is used recreationally)


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