Feb 14

Alcohol is by far the most dangerous ‘date rape drug’

The news last month that a nail varnish was being developed to detect “date rape drugs” created a media furore, attracting praise and scepticism in roughly equal measure. But this is not the first product that claims to detect drugs added surreptitiously to drinks. In recent years, others have included coastersstrawsand glasses.

The market for these items is unsurprising given widespread public fears and horror stories about drug-facilitated sexual assault (DFSA). Even so, the idea that a product can somehow prevent sexual assault has been criticised by those who work with victims. Katie Russell from Rape Crisis England and Wales summarised the concerns:

Rape Crisis does not endorse or promote such a product or anything similar. This is for three reasons: it implies that it’s the woman’s fault and assumes responsibility on her behalf, and detracts from the real issues that arise from sexual violence.

Other criticisms have focused on the dubious promises of drug detection made for such products, some of which have given positive results when exposed to things like milk and mineral water.

Yet even ignoring issues over accuracy and the implicit message sent out, products like these could only be of use if drink-spiking were commonplace. Despite the public perception, evidence strongly suggests this is not the case.

In 2005, forensic scientists Michael Ham and Fiona Burton tested blood and urinefor telltale markers of various drugs in 1,014 cases in the UK where DFSA was suspected. The drug most commonly found was alcohol, often in high concentrations. Just over a quarter of the cases in the study tested positive for recreational drugs, including cannabis, ecstasy, cocaine, amphetamines and heroin.

In many cases these illicit substances appeared in conjunction with alcohol. This is an important consideration, because combining alcohol with drugs can exacerbate its powerful hypnotic and memory-diminishing properties.

The researchers also tested for therapeutic drugs with the potential to be abused. In 187 cases, a medicine with a sedative effect was detected, but in the overwhelming majority of these cases its presence was due to therapeutic or elective recreational use.

The conclusion was that only 21 of the 1,014 accounts could be classified as potential DFSA cases. Even in such cases, the authors noted it was “ … not always possible to obtain sufficient information to decide whether or not the complainant had taken the drug voluntarily”.

A study conducted in Australia in 2009 looked at toxicology results from suspected DFSA cases and found a similar trend. High alcohol concentration was again the biggest factor, with illicit drug use also prevalent. Among the 101 cases, there was no evidence that a sedative had been illegally added to any drinks, leading the authors to conclude that the study “did not reflect the current public perception of drink spiking. Drink spiking with sedative or illicit drugs appears to be rare. If drink spiking does occur, ethanol [alcohol] appears to be the most common agent used.”

This echoes an investigation in Wales in 2007 which found no evidence of covert drink spiking but did find excessive levels of alcohol consumption and frequent illicit drug use.


A potentially confounding factor in these studies is that people either forget or denied they had taken illegal drugs. In Burton and Ham’s analysis, typically only 25% of those who tested positive for drugs such as cannabis, amphetamines and heroin admitted taking them, perhaps due to memory loss or fear that their DFSA complaint might not be taken seriously.

These studies strongly suggest that the media fixation on covert drink spiking with a pill or powder is misplaced, and that such acts are vanishingly rare. They show that it is alcohol we should be wary of.

Alcohol is such an integral part of our culture we frequently underestimate its potencyAmong its toxic effects are memory impairment, which typically begins after just one or two drinks. Alcohol-induced blackouts are common among young, social drinkers. A study in 1999 found that 35% of trainees in a large paediatric residency programme in the US had experienced an alcohol-induced blackout. Another study in 1995 found a third of first–year medical students had experienced alcohol-induced amnesia. An investigation of 2,076 Finnish malesfound 35% had had at least one blackout in the previous 12 months.

Research suggests that alcohol-induced blackouts are even more common among university students. A 2002 study in the US surveyed 772 undergraduates asking them if they had ever awoken after a night of drinking unable to remember things that they did or places they had gone. Just over half of drinkers, 51%, reported blacking out and later learning that they had engaged in a range of activities they could not recall, including vandalism, unprotected sex and even driving.

Despite males in the survey drinking significantly more, men and women experienced an equal blackout rate, probably as a result of gender-specific differences in alcohol metabolism. Other investigations suggest that women may be more susceptible than men to milder forms of alcohol–induced memory impairments. In a subsequent study, 50 undergraduates who had experienced at least one blackout were interviewed. While the blackouts were deeply disconcerting to both men and women, women were far more likely (59%) to change their drinking habits after such an episode than men (25%).

While we may think we know our limits, alcohol metabolism is hugely variable and influenced by a range of factors, only some of which we control. Blood-alcohol content is strongly affected by the amount of food we have eaten prior to drinking, permeability of the gastric and intestinal tissues and body mass, among numerous other factors. Worse, alcohol reacts strongly with other drugs, particularly cannabisand benzodiazepines making blackouts far more likely. The latter is particularly problematic, as this drug type is the basis of many anti-anxiety and muscle-relaxant medication.

It is vital to remember that sexual activity with someone who cannot give informed consent is assault, regardless of the particular agent that rendered them incapacitated, and cannot be justified. Whether their becoming intoxicated is their own fault or someone else’s is irrelevant. The mentality that an inebriated victim is somehow “asking for it” should never be accepted.

The problem with products for detecting “date rape drugs” is that they are unreliable and will not prevent rape. While the idea of malicious drink spiking is understandably terrifying, the evidence suggests that it is exceptionally uncommon and that these products instil a false sense of security and a skewed perception of risk. The discomforting truth is that the overwhelming majority of rapes are committed not by the archetypal odious stranger but by a person known or even intimate with the victim.

While fears over exotic rape drugs might be unfounded, rape is all too common and alcohol frequently plays a role. Rather than fixating on unlikely scenarios of drink spiking, we might be better served by reexamining our collective relationship with alcohol and reinforcing the message that sex with someone incapable of giving consent is assault.


see the article here