A few weeks back, BuzzFeedNews wrote an in-depth article on the unreliability of date rape drug testing and how the tests harm investigations and often prevent prosecutions.
Reading the article angered me. I became frustrated over the additional harm done to victims from a lack of national testing standards. My gut feeling was our lack of national or even statewide standards and capabilities, results in victims being re-victimized after a rape.
As with many other blog posts, it forced me to dig a little deeper and communicate with experts to see who was available to comment on this topic, to continue the discussion. Hopefully, by continuing the discussion we might shine more light on the problem and bring it one step closer to a solution.
Without reliable testing standards, how do we preserve evidence for a future prosecution? Even worse, how do we even know if the victim was drugged? If we do not set a standard, how will medical facilities know which drugs to test for during a DFSA screening? Furthermore, we need a comprehensive testing protocol to determine the standard of care when drug-assisted rape is suspected.
Normally, I provide my “two-cents” on a subject before diving into the Q&A with an expert witness. With this subject, I want to hear directly from the medical professional, and I’m sure the readers feel the same.
Forensic Psychiatry Expert Witness Sanjay Adhia
Dr. Sanjay Adhia is triple-board-certified in psychiatry, brain injury medicine and forensic psychiatry. In addition to forensic/expert witness practice, Dr. Adhia is medical director of PACE Mental Health Clinic in the Houston area. His forensic practice focuses on the psychiatric impact of personal injury, abuse, competency, violence, and complicating mental illness. Dr. Adhia evaluates and treats psychiatric injury and disability in victims and alleged abusers. Dr. Adhia is among one of the few forensic psychiatrists who is board-certified in Brain Injury Medicine. To learn more about his forensic psychiatry practice, visit: https://www.forensicpsychiatrynow.com/.
Nick: You have written about the issue of date rape drugs in this article (also found directly on Dr. Adhia’s website: https://www.forensicpsychiatrynow.com/date-rape-drugs) in the past. What are some drugs commonly used in date rape assaults?
Dr. Adhia: Common characteristics of many drugs used in Drug Facilitated Sexual Assaults (DFSAs) include the ability to incapacitate a victim and to cause anterograde amnesia (inability to recall the assault).
There are quite a few drugs commonly used in DFSAs. The most common and readily available drug is alcohol. Sedatives that are used by perpetrators include Ambien. Benzodiazepines, a class of medications used to treat anxiety, are often employed in DFSAs. They include Valium, Xanax, Ativan and Rohypnol (“Roofies”). Gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), a recreational drug with stimulating and sedating properties, is preferred by some perpetrators as it leaves the body quite rapidly. Ketamine (an anesthetic), Ecstasy (MDMA) and Soma (muscle relaxant) are additional examples of date rape drugs.
Nick: According to the BuzzFeedNews article, there are no national standards with regards to drug testing for date rape drugs. Do you have any recommendations for testing standards?
Dr. Adhia: I would recommend national standards. These standards could establish certification requirements for labs, lab staff and physicians who interpret the tests. For, example there are physicians who are certified to be an MRO (Medical Review Officer). They have expertise in interpreting drug tests. The standards should include time-specific criteria for the various samples to be tested (blood, urine or hair). There should be a list of drugs that are required to be tested. Recently, I was involved in a case where the sample was destroyed after a year and GHB was not included in the testing battery. The standards should establish reliable methodology and concentration cut-offs for each tested substance. Ideally, there should not be any false-negatives or false-positives. Confounding factors could be considered in national standards.
Nick: In the past, I only ever heard it referred to as “date rape.” I understand it is now called Drug-Facilitated Sexual Assault (DFSA). Is there a national committee working to create standards for addressing DFSA cases?
A National Protocol for Sexual Assault Medical Forensic Examinations, 2nd Edition was published by the Department of Justice Office of Violence Against Woman. It includes a section on drug and alcohol testing. (Refer to https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ovw/241903.pdf page 107).
Internationally, the United Nations has published “Guidelines for the forensic analysis of drugs facilitating sexual assault and other criminal acts.”
Nick: In your forensic psychiatry practice, how do you go about treating those suffering the aftermath of DFSA? For example, victims often cannot remember the attack, so what approaches are used? With what issues are victims likely to suffer after DFSA (i.e. depression, anxiety)?
Dr. Adhia: Drug-induced amnesia is not protective of PTSD and other disorders that can occur after a DFSA. For example, some of Bill Cosby’s DFSA victims reported symptoms indicative of PTSD in their victim-impact statements. Many of his victims had life-long effects such as a reduced ability to trust men and form relationships, panic attacks, and nightmares. In DFSAs, there can be a sense of shame and self-blame. A victim could be at increased risk for substance abuse or suicide.
The treatment for PTSD and other co-occurring disorders such as depression or anxiety disorders include medications and counselling. Two medications often used in PTSD include anti-depressants and a blood pressure medication that helps reduce the nightmares. Occasionally, mood-stabilizers and anti-psychotic medications are used to target associated symptoms such as irritability. Counselling includes individual and group psychotherapy.
Nick: Any other comments on concerns you wish to share about this crime…
Dr. Adhia: With increasing awareness, the hope is victims act promptly to preserve evidence for prosecution. Many of these drugs will exit the body in under three days or less. A victim can save his or her urine in a clean and closed container and refrigerate it promptly. A rape kit should be performed as soon as possible. The National Sexual Assault Hotline can be called at 800.656.HOPE to find a medical center for a sexual assault forensic exam with urine and blood testing for drugs.
Prompt treatment of the medical and psychiatric sequelae of DFSA is critical. A victim should be monitored and treated for any drug toxicity. There have been unfortunate cases of overdose such as with Tammy Homolka who choked on her vomit after being drugged with halothane in the course of a DFSA committed by her sister, Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo. Emergency birth control and STD treatment is often indicated after sexual assaults.
Victims should be evaluated and treated for psychiatric disorders soon after the assault. The hotline number above can be contacted to provide referrals.
Again, the National Sexual Assault Hotline phone number is: 800.656.HOPE. The hotline is maintained by RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). They also have live chat options available on their home page: https://www.rainn.org.