Banning 'Date Rape' Drugs Sounds Reasonable, Right? Here's Why the Idea Is Idiotic

California is weighing a ban on a trio of obscure drugs, but they ignore the biggest date rape drug of all.

Possession of so-called date rape drugs could become a felony under a California bill that marks the first effort to roll back parts of last year's voter-approved Proposition 47. That initiative is an effort to begin to reverse the state's prison-swelling war on drugs by making simple drug possession a misdemeanor, and a likely candidate for copy-cat legislation in other states.

The avowed goal of the new legislation—seeking to prevent date rape—is indeed laudable, but the politicians behind the move are either misinformed about who uses such drugs and why or they are deliberately misrepresenting the facts.

"Date rape drugs are tools in the hand of predators and they're not a recreational drug," said   Rep. Tom Lackey(R-Antelope Valley), a former Highway Patrol sergeant and chief sponsor of Assembly Bill 46. A companion measure has been filed in the Senate

[Update: The bill passed the Assembly Public Safety Committee on April 14.]

The bills would break with Prop 47 by treating three specified drugs—ketamine, Rohypnol, and GHB—more severely than other drugs.  Instead of charging people caught with personal amounts of these substances as misdemeanors, as is the case with cocaine, heroin, meth, and all other drugs, prosecutors would now have the option of charging them with a felony.

"We should not wait for women to be victimized before serious charges are available to prosecutors,” said Sen. Cathleen Galgiani (D-Stockton), sponsor of the Senate version. "A person found in possession of these drugs is likely intending to use them to commit a sexual assault—not for personal use. Law enforcement must be able to charge a person accordingly."

But not only are the legislators misrepresenting the vast majority of the users of these drugs, they are also missing the forest for the trees. If they really wanted to criminalize a drug to prevent date rape, that drug would be alcohol. According to a 2005 Justice Department study, the specified "date rape" drugs were present in only 4.2% of sexual assaults, while other drugs, including alcohol, were present in 61%. (That same study also listed 45 other substances that could be used to impair someone.)

Similarly, a study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism implicated alcohol in 50% of all sexual assaults.

Experts on the topic tell similar stories.

"Quite honestly, alcohol is the No. 1 date rape drug," said Mike Lyttle, regional supervisor for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's Nashville crime lab. "Roofies are very rarely — if ever — seen in real life," he told USA Today.

"We really don't know for sure what the actual numbers are," said Dr. Susan R.B. Weiss, associate director for scientific affairs for the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health. "But drugs that are sedating drugs or incapacitating drugs probably are not that common in sexual assault.  "We really don't know the true prevalence, but we know for sure alcohol is much more common than other drugs."

Still, substances targeted in these bills—Rohypnol, ketamine, and GHB—are only used as "date rape drugs" and that justifies their users getting harsher treatment, the legislators said.

But a quick glimpse at the Vaults of Erowid puts the lie to that claim. Erowid is a website dedicated to "documenting the complex relationships between humans and psychoactives," and one of its most fascinating sections is its user reports. They consist of write-ups of thousands of experiences with a panoply of mind-melting substances submitted by the users themselves.

Erowid describes ketamine as "a disassociative psychedelic" that can, at higher doses, cause users to "find themselves completely removed from their surroundings and their bodies." People going down the K-hole, as it were, might experience "alternate planes of existence, a sense of movement through a space or landscape, a oneness with everything, past and future revelations, and strange fabrics or textures of all sorts," Erowid reports. 

The Erowid Experience Vaults for ketamine has hundreds of user reports—the good, the bad, and the truly weird—some from people using Special K in lower doses, sniffing it like coke as a social party drug; many from avid and dedicated psychonauts, those explorers of the chemically-enhanced inner mind seeking who blast themselves into some very strange inner places; even some from people attempting to use it therapeutically, self-medicating with it to address issues like depression, addiction, and anxiety.

Erowid describes GHB as "a sedative used both as a prescription sleep-aid and as a recreational intoxicant. It is known for its ability to induce a short (several hour) coma-like sleep at high doses."

It's obvious from the description that GHB is used to party with, and the Erowid GHB vault, with more than 200 entries, backs that up. The drug is also described as a sedative, and like any sedative, it could be used to dose someone without her knowledge. On its GHB page, Erowid thoughtfully provided an admonitory primer on substance related sexual assault nearly 15 years ago.

Rohypnol ("roofies"), a trade name for flunitrazapam, is a strong sedative and hypnotic prescribed for chronic or intense insomnia—but not in the US. The drug has never been approved by the FDA for use here, and actually seems to have had its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, until it was labeled a date rape drug.

It doesn't seem to be much of one now. That Justice Department study cited above found Rohypnol in only 0.5% of victims of drug-facilitated sexual assaults, and a 2006 British study found 2% had any sedatives in their urine 12 hours after the assault.  Similarly, a 2009 Australian study of 97 patients admitted to hospitals claiming their drinks had been spiked was unable to find a single case where the drinkers had actually been dosed with sedatives.  They did find, however, that the mean blood alcohol level of the patients was 0.096%, well above what is legally considered too drunk to drive in the US.

Compared to the other drugs in question, Rohypnol doesn't appear to be of much interest to the Erowid set—there are only 20-odd user reports in the flunitrazepam vault. They appear to be using for recreational or self-therapeutic reasons, and user report titles such as "My Mind Is A Blank," "Goofy Roofie," and "A Lot I Don't Remember" provide a hint of the experiences.

It seems clear that while ketamine, GHB, and Rohypnol, like many other drugs, including most prominently alcohol, can be used for nefarious purposes, those three substances are only a tiny part of the problem. It seems equally clear that substantial numbers of people who are not date rapists but recreational drug users are using these drugs.  If these misinformed bills actually become law, the people who will be hit with harsher penalties are much more likely to be innocent partiers than deviant criminals. 

Phillip Smith is editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter and author of the Drug War Chronicle.

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