September 2020: The ‘Date Rape Drug’ Label Continues to Cast a Long — and Distorting — Shadow

In my book Drink Spiking and Predatory Drugging: A Modern History, I talked about how crucial the 90s were in shaping the threat of drugging in the public mind. Three drugs in particular — GHB, flunitrazepam (“roofies”), and ketamine — took on a kind of master identity as predatory drugs. They were far from that. Having particular pharmaceutical and industrial uses, they were diverted like many drugs into the recreational, illicit market. But specific incidents involving these drugs contributed to the criminalization process in the late 1990s, even though they are considerably less likely to be found in tests where surreptitious drugging is suspected than ordinary street drugs, and considerably less likely than high blood alcohol content levels. A Federal law imposing significant criminal sanctions, the Hillory J. Farias and Samantha Reid Date-Rape Drug Prohibition Act, for distribution of these specific drugs was named for two teenage girls, in two separate cases, that died after suspected GHB ingestion. In reality, their cases bore little resemblance to the now stereotypical drink-spiking-followed-by-assault scenario. And it obscured the primary use of these drugs – which, in turn, shaped poor public health messaging about hazards associated with their voluntary use.

There are many things wrong with the ‘date rape drugs’ label and this current post touches on just a few. I can recommend two recent articles on the topic that underscore the real and evolving public health dangers of mischaracterizing how specific drugs are primarily used. In “How Our Obsession with Roofies Obscured the Truth About Date Rape” by Madeleine Holden in MEL Magazine, the author talked about how myths about drink spiking and assault can cause us to make false assumptions about predatory situations, even ones involving drink spiking in public places. And in “The ‘Date-Rape Drug’ Narrative Has Been Weaponized Against GHB Users” by Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard in Filter Magazine we can see how the long history of the date rape drug label attached to GHB — once legal and available in health food stores — prevents more accurate and pro-active public health advice from being available. This was true in the 90s, with an upsurge in ER visits after voluntary use; today, Blanchard notes, scares around “chemsex” and queer spaces seem preoccupied with this drug’s hazards above all others. It seems like the now two decades of framing it as a unique weapon (it isn’t) facilitates this. Both articles show the lost opportunity to provide accurate and helpful harm reduction and caution information for voluntary users, and the real impact that drug panics can have on public health intervention.

Related Posts:

The Life and Times of the Term ‘Date Rape’

Drink Spiking: Toxicology and Emergency Medicine Research