Lab tests provide answers on drugs, sexual assaults

Toxicological and DNA tests done on samples taken from people who suspect they were drugged and then sexually assaulted lend support to their belief.

Toxicological and DNA tests done on samples taken from people who suspect they were drugged and then sexually assaulted lend support to their belief.

Drugs and-or alcohol were found in the toxicology samples of 76 per cent of the 184 women and men who were studied, according to Canadian research published online by the U.K.-based Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine.

Of those, the drugs found were unexpected in 64 per cent of cases with a positive drug finding.

“There was a drug found that the victim survivor said that they had not voluntarily consumed,” said one of the principal investigators, Janice Du Mont of the Women’s College Research Institute in Toronto.

“When we looked at unexpected drugs — those that they hadn’t voluntarily consumed — then the most common drugs were the street drugs marijuana and cocaine and amphetamines, followed by analgesics such as codeine and morphine, and anti-anxiety medications like lorazepam.”

Du Mont said in an interview Wednesday that Rohypnol, which is often called the “date rape drug,” was not detected. However, she noted that women can be slipped drugs in a variety of ways.

“Regular tobacco can be laced with marijuana in roll-your-own cigarettes,” she said. “Cocaine can be absorbed orally, although it takes longer — it can come in liquid or in powder that can be mixed in drinks.”

The research builds on an earlier study that found that just over one in five women and men showing up at sexual assault centres believed they had been intentionally drugged, then sexually assaulted.

In this study involving seven sexual assault treatment centres in Ontario, most subjects — 96 per cent — were women. And almost 86 per cent had been voluntarily consuming alcohol.

“Alcohol would enhance the effects of any drugs that were slipped them. It would also enhance the effects of any drugs they were actually taking voluntarily as well,” Du Mont noted.

The victims were also swabbed for male DNA.

“Where we found a positive result for male DNA, in 47 per cent of cases it was unexpected. That is, the individual had not engaged in consensual sexual activity in the previous week.

If they had, then we didn’t consider it an unexpected result,” explained Du Mont.

She said they did the study because clients felt an added component of stress in not knowing exactly what had happened to them. It’s hoped the findings will lead to standards of practice in caring for people who have experienced what’s known as drug-facilitated sexual assault.

Only a limited number of laboratories in Ontario have the capacity to test for a wide range of drugs at trace levels, Du Mont noted.

She would like to see easy access to hospital-based toxicological screening services with the sensitivity to detect so-called date rape drugs.

And there’s a message for people who believe they’ve been drugged and sexually assaulted.

“They should come to an emergency department or a sexual assault treatment centre as soon as possible … You’re more likely to find the presence of drugs and male DNA the quicker you present somewhere, and give a sample.”

Stephanie Capyk, manager of direct client services at the Victoria Women’s Sexual Assault Centre, said some medications like lorazepam can cause women to be quite confused as they try to assess unexplained symptoms or soreness.

“Then they start to piece it together and go ’wait a minute, maybe there was a sexual assault.’ And then they show up at the hospital 12 hours later potentially, and by that time the substances have completely left their bodies.”

Du Mont believes that members of the community have an obligation to step in if they see a dangerous situation evolving, and the onus shouldn’t just be on women to be modifying their behaviour with messages like “watch your drink” and “party with a buddy.”

Bystander interventions could involve a bartender stepping in to stop providing alcohol to somebody who’s becoming intoxicated or a bouncer not letting two men walk out with an unconscious woman in their arms, she said.

Friends heading out on the town could discuss in advance how they’d want someone to intervene if they’re in a vulnerable situation and being plied with alcohol, she added.

Capyk said the new research adds an extra layer of information to what’s known about drug-facilitated sexual assault.

“I think it’s a very powerful study and it offers some information that we have been lacking for a long time in Canada, and internationally as well,” she said.

“It has the potential to influence policy in terms of the guidelines that sexual assault nurse examiners have for the collection of samples.”

She said it could also lead to clearer educational campaigns with the message that “if you have this experience you may consider this may be part of what’s gone on. Get to the hospital right away, don’t urinate, don’t brush your teeth.”

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