Date-rape drugs and the technology to combat them

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health highlights icon copyBy Kristina Bostley
Campus News

After a few rounds of drinks, it’s often difficult for young adults to keep track of their drinks — and their inhibitions. The incidence of date rape has climbed steadily throughout the years, and despite the staggering statistics surrounding the touchy subject, they continue to rise. In addition to informing women and men about date rape, researchers around the globe have been developing ways to target and combat drugs commonly used by rapists.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted every 2 minutes; 73% of those assaults are committed by someone with whom the victim is familiar. The National Institute of Justice and Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reports that of every six women, one of them will experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. The University of the Sciences claims that females from 16 to 24 years of age are four times more likely to be date raped compared with women of other ages. There are three major drugs used by rapists to diminish their ability to make rational decisions.

Rohypnol is a benzodiazepine, a class of drugs that affects the central nervous system most often as a sedative or muscle relaxant. Rohypnol was originally prescribed as a sedative to help treat insomnia, help with anxiety, and prevent convulsions. The onset of side effects after taking Rohypnol is approximately 30 minutes and includes struggling with muscle control and motor movements such as walking, and seeing; feeling drunk, dizzy, or nauseated; amnesia; loss of consciousness; and death. Known commonly as “roofies,” they come in a pill form that can be ground up into a powder. Older pills were round and white, but in recent years the formulation of Rohypnol changed and the pills are now manufactured as oval, greenish-gray colored pills.

The second common date rape drug is often referred to GHB, which stands for gamma hydroxybutyrate, a naturally-occurring metabolite in the brain that helps to regulate the central nervous system. The manufactured drug contains significantly higher levels of the metabolite, thus taxing the central nervous system even further and making it a viable date rape drug. The effects of GHB are experienced within 15 minutes of consumption and typically last three to four hours. The most common side effect experienced by 69% of people who have ingested GHB is a loss of consciousness. Other side effects include feelings of euphoria, drowsiness, dizziness, or nausea; problems seeing and breathing; increased sex drive; amnesia; experiencing seizures, tremors, sweating, or vomiting; coma; and death. GHB, known as “liquid ecstasy,” exists in a few different forms: an odorless and colorless liquid, a white powder, and a pill.

Ketamine is an anesthetic often used before surgery because it is metabolized in the brain to prevent pain. Ketamine distorts the user’s sense of reality, including sight, sound, time, and who they are. The dream-like feeling it induces can make the user feel as though they are having an out-of-body experience in which they have lost control – and they have. The drug’s other side effects include a decrease in basic motor functions including coordination, speech, and breathing; alterations in behavior, often resulting in aggressive or violent actions; depression; numbness; convulsions; vomiting; and amnesia. Referred to as “Special K,” the drug comes in both a powder and liquid form and can be highly addictive.

Several companies have begun to develop technologies to detect these drugs in drinks. Drink Safe Technologies has come up with an innovative way to check drinks for GHB and Ketamine using coasters. Built with testing strips, placing a drop of the drink in question on the coaster will reveal within a few minutes whether the drink has been tampered with if either spot turns dark blue. The coasters and additional test strips are sold on their website.

Another company, DrinkSavvy, has developed both a glass and a straw, which change color when they detect the presence of date rape drugs. The idea for these technologies was born when the company’s founder, Mike Abramson, was slipped a drug while celebrating a friend’s birthday. Abramson hopes to convince bars to use these products to aid in protecting the safety of customers.

By far the most technologically advanced device used to test for date rape drugs is the pd.id, a revolutionary new gadget about the size of a USB flash drive. It’s reusable and has a simple interface: when dipped into a drink, it tests the liquid and indicates by red and green LED lights whether or not the drink is safe to consume. It is also programmed to communicate with smartphones, sending alerts if a drink has been drugged. The project has been proposed online and is collecting donations to move ahead with creating and distributing the technology. According to their website, the creators of the pd.id are hoping to sell each device for about $75.

It could be argued that these new inventions have the potential to be relied on too heavily, that substituting technology for awareness could be disastrous. However, these new innovations take a step toward helping to raise awareness simply by existing. By bringing any one of these technologies to a bar or a party, the user is already thinking about the possibility and prevention of date rape.

There is one other date rape drug worth noting, and it is the one most commonly used in date rape. It is legal and easy to obtain. In fact, almost every food and drink establishment offers it to their patrons, so long as they have obtained a liquor license. That’s right: alcohol is the number one date rape drug available, classified as such because it affects judgment and behavior and can imitate some of the effects produced by Rophynol, GHB, and Ketamine. The University of the Sciences claims about 90% of date rape happens when alcohol is involved. Studies estimate that anywhere from 34% to 74% of sexual assaults involve alcohol. But because date rape is frequently unreported, it is hard for studies to evaluate what percentage of date rape is attributed to alcohol.

New technology is a step in the right direction toward preventing date rape. But nothing will reinforce the dangers of date rape more than creating awareness and instilling knowledge in all individuals. Using the buddy system, buying and protecting drinks, and knowing drinking limits and surroundings are the best way to thwart date rape.

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