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Date with rape

Drug-facilitated sexual assault has become a major issue in the United States. The bottom line is that women are more vulnerable than ever. ELAYNE CLIFT analyses the preventive measures taken by the authorities.



On guard ... always.

DATE rape, a sexual assault crime often facilitated by drugs, is on the rise in the United States. Here's how it usually happens: A college student goes to a bar with some of her friends. While she visits the restroom, the guy she's been talking to unobtrusively slips a colourless, tasteless, odourless substance into her drink. Sipping her beverage, she has no idea that she will soon be impaired and defenceless. Her "date" invites her back to his place, where she slips into a drugged sleep from which she cannot rouse herself even as she is being raped. In the morning, she may or may not remember what happened.

Drug-facilitated sexual assault has become a growing concern among health educators and feminist activists. While it is difficult to know the extent of this crime, it is said to be "increasing at an alarming rate". Date rape drugs, also known as "predatory drugs" or "club drugs", are particularly dangerous when combined with alcohol. (Every year, an estimated 70,000 college students, most of them women, are victims of alcohol-related rape or sexual assault.) Common date rape drugs include Rohypnol, Ketamine, and GHB, a central nervous system sedative also known as "Liquid Ecstasy".

Rohypnol ("roach" or "roofies" in drug-speak) is a powerful sedative in the same class as Valium but much more powerful. While not legally available in the U.S., it is legal in 60 other countries for treating insomnia. Rohyphol makes users feel intoxicated within 10 minutes of ingestion and its effects can last up to eight hours. Someone who has ingested the drug may experience slurred speech, impaired judgement and difficulty walking. The potential for overdose is high, and blackouts or respiratory distress occur frequently.

Ketamine ("special K") is an injectable anaesthetic mainly used in veterinary practice. It gained popularity in the 1980s when users realised it emulated PCP, inducing dreamlike states and hallucinations. Like GHB, it is available in liquid or powder form and is therefore easily slipped into a drink.

The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) banned GHB, once used as a performance enhancer for body builders, in 1990. It produces unconsciousness, along with nausea, seizures and depressed respiration in some cases.

Date rape and the illicit drugs used to facilitate it are being addressed on several fronts. In the last two years, new products have become available to help detect the presence of illicit drugs in drinks. Similar to a litmus test, beverages are tested by applying a small amount of the liquid to a strip or spot on a specially designed coaster. If the spot turns dark blue, an illicit drug has contaminated the drink.

Marketed by Drink Safe Technologies, a two-test coaster costs one dollar; a set of 10 cards (good for 20 tests) is $ 7.50. The U.S. Justice Department, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the U.S. Customs Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the FBI, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are making unprecedented efforts to end drug trafficking and put a stop to "point and click" internet trade.

"Operation Webslinger" was initiated last September and is especially directed at web-based drug trafficking operations. At the same time, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has stepped up efforts aimed at education and community outreach. Its Club Drug Initiative, launched at a 2001 international scientific conference on drug use, supports research designed to explore who users are, why they buy into the drug culture, and how to prevent that from happening. NIDA also makes available various resource materials appropriate to young adult audiences. Over 800 colleges and universities in the U.S. and numerous women's and health centres are using one of these resources, "Facts on Tap".

In addition, NIDA and its Initiative partners are aggressively marketing web resources, mini-magazines, and training programmes. Restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and bookstores are among the many venues NIDA is asking for help. Related programmes include "International Students in Action", a peer education project, and "Join Together", a Boston-based national resource for community efforts to reduce substance abuse and violence.

Laudable as these efforts are, the fact is that women are more vulnerable to sexual assault now than ever. Despite "learning not to walk on dark streets, not to talk to strangers or get into strange cars, to lock doors and be modest", as one woman put it, women are potentially at risk in every social situation.

"Being smart is really important," said one college student. "It's just a shame that we always have to be on our guard." And terribly sad as well.

(For more information, visit: American Council for Drug Education at www.acde.org and Drink Safe Technologies at www.drinksafecoaster.com)

Women's Feature Service

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