Sobering up to the reality of rape drugs in Vermont
Friends tell "Megan" she's lucky.
At least she didn't get raped. But she doesn't take much comfort in that fact. The 26-year-old University of Vermont student -- who has asked to remain anonymous -- suspects that three months ago at a downtown bar she was "roofied." A drink she tasted had been laced with a drug intended to facilitate sex.
But Megan will never be sure. All she knows for certain is that one night she went out on the town with some friends and wound up severely "ripped" and having seizures in an ambulance that was racing her to the emergency room.
The term "roofied" comes from Rohypnol, a trade name for a Valium-like depressant called flunitrazepam. But Megan's drink might have been spiked with any one of a number of substances. The list also includes the rave-drugs ketamine, an anesthetic most often used by veterinarians, and GHB, a depressant that was originally marketed at health-food stores as a body builder.
What all these drugs have in common is their power to inhibit a person's ability to resist sexual advances. They're commonly referred to as "date-rape drugs," but "rape drugs" is more accurate -- the parties involved may well be strangers. Burlington Police Sergeant Bruce Bovat, who works with the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations (CUSI), describes an all-too-common scenario in which the predator doses a number of drinks, then sits back and watches. When one of his targets appears to be very intoxicated and alone, the aggressor steps forward like a knight in shining armor and offers to help the woman home.
To the outsider -- particularly bar staff who may be anxious to get someone who's apparently very drunk off the premises -- the victim seems to be enjoying the predator's attention. But "you're walking around in the middle of a blackout," explains Sarah Kenney, a rape-drug survivor. Because they cause temporary amnesia, and because they metabolize relatively quickly, rape drugs easily evade identification -- and so do the predators who deploy them.
The trend made national headlines in 1999, after Samantha Reid, a 15-year-old Detroit-area girl, died from drinking a Mountain Dew a friend had dosed with GHB. Possession, manufacture or distribution of the drug subsequently became a federal offense. In Vermont, during the winter of 2001-02, the Women's Rape Crisis Center (WRCC) issued an alarm about a sudden rise in reports of rape drugs appearing at Burlington-area bars and house parties.
This spring, following another cluster of apparent rape-drug assaults, the Legislature passed a bill that allows customers in most bars to keep their drinks with them at all times, including on the dance floor. The law reverses an older rule that was aimed at curbing barroom brawls.
After the "no drink left behind act" becomes law on July 1, club patrons will drink more securely. But potential victims remain generally oblivious to the danger. And because of its very nature, "roofying" will likely remain hard to prevent and difficult to detect.
Megan's nightmare began on Friday, March 26. At around 7, she and some friends met for dinner at The Waiting Room in downtown Burlington. They then moved on to Red Square and Club Metronome. By midnight or so, Megan recalls, they were back at The Waiting Room, where she ordered an apple martini -- her fourth drink of the evening.
DJ A-Dog was spinning, and after a while Megan and some of her friends got up to dance, carrying their drinks along. She'd only finished about a third of her martini when a bouncer told Megan and her friends to put their glasses down. They left their drinks at the table where a friend, "Ashley," was sitting.
While the rest of her group was dancing, Ashley recalls in a phone interview, some people came over and asked if she'd mind moving to a smaller table. "All of a sudden I was sitting with a guy I didn't know," she recalls. The man picked up her drink and lifted it over her head, moving it to the table behind her. She never saw the man's face again, she says, but when she turned around to retrieve her drink, she saw someone's hand hovering over it.
A former bartender, Ashley was concerned -- but not enough. "If this had been in a different city, I would have been leery," she says. But Ashley couldn't believe someone would be dosing drinks in Burlington. She tasted her beer.
That's when Megan returned to the table. Ashley told her, "My beer tastes funny." So Megan took a sip -- just a small one, she says, because she doesn't like beer. "It tasted as if someone had crushed up an aspirin tablet," Megan remembers.
Megan and Ashley flagged down a waitress and told her there was something wrong with the beer. The waitress gave Ashley a new drink and dumped out the old one. When Megan comes to this part of the story, she slaps her forehead -- duh -- to indicate the stupidity of discarding a drink suspected of having been poisoned.
Not long afterwards, Ashley decided she'd try to find the guy who'd moved her drink. Megan went to talk to some friends at another table. Five or 10 minutes later, "I felt something kick me," Megan recalls. "And then I fell over. It was like being submerged under 15,000 pillows and being aware of what was going on and who was around me, but I couldn't do anything. I could hear what people were saying and it was freaking me out." What people were saying was that she needed water.
Megan had been sexually assaulted as a teenager and studied about rape in school. Even in her severely impaired state, she knew she wasn't suffering from dehydration. The problem was communicating with those around her. "I was falling on myself," she says. "My brain thought I couldn't express anything. I couldn't use my arms or my head or my ears."
Eventually the bouncer came to help. Megan remembers being asked again if she needed water, and then if she needed an ambulance. She remembers that the bouncer "dragged" her into the foyer and sat her down in a chair. "He was slapping my left cheek and telling me I had to wake up. He kept saying, 'Stay with me.' He checked my pulse. My heart rate was 150 beats per minute."
Here Megan pauses to reach for a tissue. Three months after the fact, she's still visibly shaken by the scariness of what happened to her, by the feeling of helplessness and the sense of exposure. "It was like other people could see something I couldn't see," she falters. "It's like being in a fucking bubble and you're, like, 'Hello, I'm in here.'"
When the ambulance arrived, Ashley was already on the sidewalk. Not long after leaving Megan, she too had started feeling suddenly "really, really, really drunk." She'd gone outside "to regain my faculties." When she saw Megan being carried to the ambulance, she told the drivers what had happened. They checked Ashley's blood pressure and found that it was also "through the roof." In the end, she and a third friend also rode to the hospital in the ambulance.
Megan says she remembers hearing the EMTs asking Ashley, "Are you OK?" and Ashley replying, "I'm just dizzy and hot." Megan's own condition was much more acute. She was having seizures and, says Ashley, relying on a "non-breather" mask for oxygen.
Women who arrive at Fletcher Allen saying they've been sexually assaulted are assigned to members of the hospital's Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner staff. Funded through the Vermont Center for Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Abuse, SANE programs are on-site at every hospital in the state. Their nurses follow a specific protocol designed to preserve the chain of evidence. Survivors of suspected rape also receive confidential advice from WRCC crisis advocates.
Megan and Ashley didn't receive any special forensic treatment or counseling, however, because the incident that brought them to the emergency room fell short of sexual assault. Although hospital personnel won't comment on specific cases, Fletcher Allen Emergency Department Manager Tara Pacy confirms, "If there's been no sexual assault we wouldn't do any forensic work. We would make sure that they're treated based on the signs and symptoms that they come in with."
Ashley and Megan met with very different reactions. Ashley walked into the emergency room on her own power and told the nurses she was "fine." When she explained about seeing the man's hand and tasting her drink, she received a lecture. "They told me that it was very silly what I had done."
In Megan's memory of the evening, the trauma that began at the bar continues with the cold response she perceived at the hospital, and later from law enforcement. "No one in this entire process has been helpful," she says. Recalling the humiliating ordeal of being undressed in the emergency room, Megan reaches for another tissue. "People say 'You're lucky nothing worse happened to you,'" she says. "And I'm like, 'Fuck you.'"
She remembers being hooked up to an IV, having blood drawn, and being told to urinate into a cup. "I couldn't do it because I couldn't move," she says, "so they gave me a bedpan and told me that if I couldn't use the bedpan they'd have to give me a catheter."
Eventually she did manage to produce a urine sample. She's not certain what she was tested for -- she believes it was Quaaludes and barbiturates -- but she knows the list didn't include rape drugs. "The type of testing that needs to be done is not part of a typical hospital screen," notes Karen Simone of the Northern New England Poison Center. Pacy confirms, "Generally we don't touch the date-rape drug tests" in non-rape cases.
Megan says her doctor told her, "It's obvious that you've been poisoned, but we can't find out what's in your system." Tests did reveal that Megan was inebriated, but not very: Her blood alcohol level was .09 -- just barely over the legal limit for driving.
As she was leaving the hospital, Megan called the Burlington police, and she later gave a formal statement to a CUSI officer. Her report is on record, but without a suspect or even a confirmed drug identification, there's little the police can do.
On the Monday following her assault, Megan went to see her primary-care physician. She'd hoped to have the samples taken in the emergency room re-tested, but was told that the hospital hadn't saved her original samples properly. And although she provided a second urine sample, the doctor who saw her seemed unfamiliar with the testing of rape drugs, or very much else about them. When Megan said she suspected ketamine, her doctor replied, "I don't know how you can get ketamine poisoning. That's a drug you have to inject." The drug can also be ingested as a liquid, snorted or smoked.
"I feel like I really got fucked," says Megan. "And there are a lot of women like me out there. The person who did this to me has probably done this to a lot of other people."
There's no way of knowing how many other women have had experiences like Megan's. Just as an estimated two-thirds of rapes go unreported, rape-drug survivors who have not been raped usually don't seek medical help. And no one seems to be counting those who do. WRCC Executive Director Celia Cuddy guesses that her organization's hotline gets "several" calls involving rape drugs each month.
"We don't track that," says Mike Noble of Fletcher Allen's Office of Communications and Public Affairs. "We do track sexual assaults but not date-rape drugs per se," he continues. "It would be nice and interesting if we were able to track a lot of kinds of things that come in." The Department of Health only requires hospitals to report gunshot wounds, infectious diseases and other "matters of public safety," Noble explains. "This is not a reportable incident."
Until the state deems survivors of thwarted drug rapes important enough to count, public awareness of the problem will continue to depend in great part on those survivors who choose to make their stories known. And few are up to doing that, notes Cuddy. In most cases, she says, what survivors are "emotionally able to do is just leave it behind and move on."
Reporting drug-rape crimes is further complicated by the fact that most victims experience gaps in memory after the drug is ingested, explains Sarah Kenney. She speaks from personal experience. In 1998, when she was 26 and living in Washington, D.C., Kenney and three friends were drugged by a bartender, she says. "I have no memory of the night except a couple little flashes -- an image of a shrub, one of a phone booth, and one of a man's face." Two of the victims wound up in the hospital emergency room, where they were treated as if they were drunk, while Kenney and another woman woke up covered with vomit and curled up in the stairwell at a friend's home. Kenney has no recollection of how she got there, or of anything else that might have happened after the drug kicked in. She says, "I'll never know if I was raped."
"Kathryn," a 22-year-old Burlington woman, also believes she's been roofied, and also blacked out -- not once, but twice. In the summer of 2002, she says, she was with a regular group of friends at Valencia's, a now-defunct Burlington bar. She had a single beer, she recalls, but, "By the time I finished my drink it was more like I drank a 12-pack, at least." A friend took her upstairs to her apartment and put her to bed. The next day, Kathryn says, "I woke up and my balance was totally off, everything was foggy, I was groggy. It was just really weird."
A year later at Hector's, another Burlington business that has since closed, Kathryn had two Sheds. "The last thing I remember is finishing the beer," she says. She came to the next morning on her couch. "There were napkins with blood on them all over the place," she reports, "and my hair was just matted with blood." A note from her friends explained, "You were a mess so we took you home." She found out later that on the way she'd fallen in the street and cracked her head on the curb. Kathryn never sought medical help or reported the incident to the police. Her reaction is probably fairly typical -- which is part of what makes the problem so hard to pin down.
One of the better sources of rape-drug statistics is Vermont's SANE program. But SANE only counts those cases that lead to a sexual assault. According to Mary Margaret Ryan, SANE's statewide clinical coordinator, in 2003 her program performed 180 rape exams. In 28 of those cases, they tested for drugs. Forty-nine rape exams, including nine in which drugs were suspected, were recorded at Fletcher Allen. This past January, the hospital reported its first positive test for GHB. But Ryan cautions, "This is not indicative of what's out there. We just don't have a good tracking system for the positives."
One problem is that rape-drugs can't be tested locally -- or anywhere in Vermont, in fact. It's not that we lack local expertise, Ryan suggests. It's that the state's forensics lab in Waterbury doesn't have sufficient staffing. Blood and urine samples that need to be tested for rape drugs get sent to a private, out-of-state contractor. Unfortunately, the company that currently does the job is remarkably slow, according to Ryan. "Sometimes it takes three to six weeks to get results," she says. "It can be done within a week. That would certainly be better for the victim." Ryan adds that the state is looking to change contractors. "We're working on getting statistics sooner and a better reporting system so we're able to connect back with the victim."
Many times drugs go undetected because samples weren't taken soon enough. Kenney estimates that most of these drugs exit the system within 12 to 24 hours. SANE protocol calls for testing urine and blood up to 72 hours after the incident. "But when you're pushing 72 hours," Ryan notes, "you're probably not going to get results."
Another problem is knowing which specific substances to look for. Complete tests that would identify everything the patient had ingested are time-consuming. The health-care provider must make an educated guess based on the patient's presenting condition and what can be gathered about the person's history.
Cost is another obstacle. Tests can run between $500 and $800 -- a hefty price tag, especially when a conclusive outcome isn't guaranteed. Who foots the bill? According to Ryan, the Vermont Center for Crime Victims Services -- which operates under the auspices of the Vermont Department of Corrections -- will pay for testing whether or not there's been a sexual assault, "if we feel that someone is a thwarted sexual victim."
But this seems to be a well-kept secret -- and some health-care personnel seem to want to keep it that way. If word gets around that all rape-drug testing is state-funded, worries Fletcher Allen's Pacy, too many people will ask to have it done and the fund will run dry. Besides, she suggests, publicity about free tests could undermine what she sees as a more important message: prevention.
Lots of rape-drug survivors are reluctant to be tested, though, because they're afraid of what the exercise might turn up. If the police get involved, they're likely to order a "full panel" that will reveal everything the victim ingested, including voluntary recreational drugs. That could cause problems with insurance companies, law enforcement or parents. And if the case ever came to court, the presence of recreational drugs could complicate prosecution.
Looking back on her ordeal, Megan is angry about a number of things. Beyond the rage she directs at her unknown assailant, she's upset with a system she feels doesn't adequately care for -- or about -- people like her. "I haven't found any support in the police department, at the doctor's office or at the hospital," she charges. She's angry at the ineptness of the waitress who didn't save her drink and the hospital staff who didn't store her blood and urine samples properly.
The system is showing signs of change, however. Although the Liquor Control Board still doesn't include rape-drug information when they train bar personnel, since 2000, Sarah Kenney has been raising awareness among bar staff. Now working for the Vermont Network Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, she advises asking a patron who seems unaccountably intoxicated a series of questions: What have they been drinking? Who did they come with? How do they know the person they're leaving with? How are they getting home? "It may feel uncomfortable at the time," Kenney suggests, "but better to have someone mad at you than to have someone leave your bar and be assaulted."
Kenney also helped craft Act 79, the so-called "no drink left behind" bill. The change leaves individual bars the option of continuing to prohibit drinks from the dance floor -- it also leaves patrons the option of avoiding venues whose policies don't provide adequate protection.
One club that will avail itself of the new rule is The Waiting Room. Asked about Megan's experience, owner Anna Rosenbloom comments, "It was very upsetting. It's already a risky business and I think all the time about problems that can arise just because you're selling alcohol."
To help guard against mischief, Waiting Room staff clear drinks that have been left unattended for a long time, Rosenbloom says. And a new written policy put in place after March 26 directs staff not to dump out suspicious drinks, but to mark them in a specific way and save them in a special place, Rosenbloom says.
She also hopes to see better communication between bars. After she heard about what had happened to Megan, Rosenbloom called other local businesses to let them know. Clubs now have a system for informing one another about problematic patrons "you don't want in your bar, ever," she says. Downtown bars are beginning to explore a more formal system -- probably a computer list-serve -- to spread the word about other dangers, such as rape drugs, Rosenbloom says.
But bars can only do so much, she cautions. "I don't feel there's any way to be perfectly safe in that environment. Even if we'd been more vigilant and more safe, this would have happened. If someone is really dedicated to doing this, they're going to."
Ultimately, patrons have to be responsible for their own safety. That means watching their drinks -- and their friends. Kits for testing drinks are available at local stores. But they don't test for everything, they take a long time, and they don't always work as intended -- especially when a drink is milky. The test relies on a visible color change. Because of this, advocates feel the kits may actually do more harm than good, conveying a false sense of security.
Kenney also warns that all sorts of substances, legal and illegal, can be used to coax sex from unwilling, or unaware, partners. It's scary to imagine someone slipping a dose of something into your cocktail. But a much more common rape drug is the drink itself. Rohypnol, GHB and ketamine are the latest -- and a particularly insidious -- twist on a nasty, old tradition.