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Date rape drugs are difficult to distinguish from alcohol, officials say


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Courtesy Photo | U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

This is an illustration of GHB in multiple forms.

When a college student only has one or two drinks but feels much drunker, it is possible that they have been drugged.

That feeling of extreme intoxication is the most common indicator someone who has been drugged, McLaren Central Michigan Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Beth Nesbitt said. And a typical question that follows is: What do I do now?

McLaren, located at 1221 South Drive, is the largest medical facility in the region. It also houses one of over 600 SANE programs in the country.   

SANE nurses undergo specialized training in medical forensics. They not only provide treatment for those who believe they have been victims of sexual assault; but also serve as gatherers of evidence for law enforcement.

Sometimes sexual assault victims tell investigators they felt drugged before being assaulted.  

"Our first priority is making sure the patient has adequate support and that any medical issues are treated,” Nesbitt said.  

However, by understanding the methods perpetrators use to incapacitate their victims, one can avoid being dosed, know what to do if you suspect a person has been drugged or prevent a sexual assault before it happens. 

“We are looking at sedatives that make people very tired or multiply their intoxication levels,” Emergency Medical Specialist Daniel Wilkerson said. “Depending on the strength and quantity some of this stuff will make you pass out completely."

What is a date rape drug?

Technically speaking, any substance that hinders self-defense or makes decision-making difficult can be a date rape drug. Among the most common are gamma-hydroxybutyric acid, Rohypnol and alcohol. 

GHB is usually sold as a liquid or white powder that can be easily slipped into drinks. By combining a few household chemicals and cleaners, GHB is easily circulated on college campuses. 

The Drug Enforcement Administration classifies GHB as a schedule I controlled substance, meaning it's not used for medical purposes and has a high-risk potential for abuse.

Similar to GHB, Rohypnol is a depressant medication that slows body functions. It’s often referred to by street names like “roofies” or “Mexican valium.” 

While under the influence of Rohypnol, victims experience reduced inhibitions, impaired judgment and severe memory loss. 

“If someone says, ‘I was standing there drinking with my girlfriend, I looked up at her and that’s the last thing I remember,’ that is a hallmark for Rohypnol,” Nesbitt said. “If a person has one drink, and their gut tells them something is wrong, something is wrong.” 

Above all date rape drugs, extreme alcohol consumption is the leading impetus of potential sexual assault. About 43 percent of sexual assault incidents involve alcohol use by the victim and 69 percent involve alcohol use by the perpetrator, according to Alcohol.org.

The dilemma that physicians, law enforcement and bystanders face is that the effects of common date rape drugs often mimic extreme alcoholic intoxication. It can be difficult to distinguish someone who was drugged and someone who is really drunk. 

Those who have experienced the effects of alcohol should consider how they normally feel when intoxicated. An unexpected change in a person's reactions to alcohol could mean additional substances are involved. 

Symptoms include loss of consciousness, confusion, slurred speech, feeling drunk without drinking alcohol, short-term memory loss and unusual decision making. 

If someone is displaying any of these symptoms or showing signs of overdosing, it’s important to get them immediate medical attention, Wilkerson said. 

“If you’re overdosing or you’re not breathing properly, we can do things in the emergency department to prevent any further issues,” Wilkerson said. 

Seeking the help of emergency care physicians will result in hospital fees, Wilkerson said. The procedures used and the patient's insurance will dictate the final bill. 

Discouraging sexual assault begins with being a helpful bystander, according to Central Michigan University Police Lt. Cameron Wassman. 

“If anyone comes across someone who needs help whether they have been drugged or had too much to drink, they must get the help they need as quickly as possible,” Wassman said. “Don’t be concerned about getting in trouble if your underage and have been drinking."

Medical amnesty laws exempt any minor from prosecution if they seek medical attention for themselves or others after consuming alcohol. 

Wassman encourages students to never leave a drink unattended, never accept drinks from others and always bring a support system. 

“If you’re going out, go with your friends, trust in your friends, look after each other,” Wassman said. “If you go out with a group, leave with that group and don’t leave anyone behind."

For more advice on sexual assault prevention call the CMU Police Department at (989) 774-3081. The McLaren emergency department can be reached by calling (989) 772-6777. 

“The more we can prevent these things from happening, the better off we’re all going to be,” Wassman said.  

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