Cracking the Date Rape Drug Code

Legal breakthrough? European labs identify drug in the hair of victims a month after the assault. To this day, not a single indictment has been filed in Israel against someone suspected of using the drug.

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Revelers at a party.
Revelers at a party.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The women’s stories are always similar: They report waking up in hotel rooms, strange apartments or even in public bathrooms after an evening encounter that clearly ended in rape, but can remember absolutely nothing of what had transpired.

They are victims of what are commonly called “date-rape drugs” that were added to their food or drink without their knowledge. These drugs have not only facilitated an unknown number of assaults but have confounded police in their efforts to bring the assailants to justice. To this day, not  a single indictment has been filed in Israel against someone suspected of using the drug.

Although the women generally know who assaulted them, they cannot remember anything about the attack and thus cannot file a coherent report. What’s worse, these drugs – primarily GBL and GHB, but also rohypnol and ketamine – pass out of the body so quickly that by the time the women go for medical exams or to the police, there is no longer physical evidence that the drugs were used.

Because the victims were often consuming alcohol on the date with their assailant, for many years their assertions were greeted skeptically by law enforcement and healthcare professionals.

“At first I thought this was an urban legend, because so many women were coming with similar stories after having drunk alcohol and we found no sign of the drug,” explained Dr. Julia Barda, a gynecologist who directs the Sexual Assault Center at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, popularly known as “Room 4.” “But after years of hearing these stories, I can now know exactly which cases involved the use of a rape drug. We get girls who tell of similar experiences of total memory loss and total loss of control of their bodies, which doesn’t correlate with mere alcohol consumption.”

The drug, which causes disorientation and acts as a muscle relaxant, begins to work only 20 minutes after it enters the body and remains effective for four hours. After eight hours the drug is already out of the bloodstream, and after 12 hours it will no longer leave traces in the urine.

“Most of the girls come only the next day, when they put two and two together and realize that they’d been raped and that someone took advantage of them,” said a senior Tel Aviv District police officer. “They wake up in an apartment or a hotel and don’t know what they’re doing there; they go home and only afterward come to give evidence, when there’s no longer any trace of the drug in their blood. But we know for certain, based on their testimony, that they are victims.”

Tel Aviv District Commander Maj. Gen. Bentzi Sau stressed that any woman who comes to report a rape in which a drug may be involved should be taken immediately to a hospital for examination and the complaint taken only afterward, since time is of the essence.

A recent development in Europe may offer some hope. Labs in France and Germany have succeeded in identifying GHB in the hair of victims a month after the assault. Israel’s Health Ministry, in cooperation with the toxins laboratory at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer has started to cooperate with these foreign labs and is looking into the possibility of sending them hair samples from Israeli victims. The feasibility of opening a similar lab in Israel is being assessed.

Cmdr. Yitzhak Gatenyo of the Tel Aviv District Intelligence and Investigations Department says that the hair test could be a game-changer. “It could bring us to a different place in fighting the phenomenon. Such a test, if it proves admissible in court, would cause a dramatic change.”

A month, he said, would provide enough time to conduct a thorough investigation, even if the victim doesn’t remember what exactly happened.

But until these hair tests become accessible, suspects usually avoid prosecution with ease by claiming that the woman remembers nothing because she was drunk.

Meanwhile, despite the drugs’ nickname, they are apparently also being used to commit non-sexual crimes as well. Recent years have seen an increasing number of complaints about barmen inserting the drugs into customers’ drinks to enable theft of their money and property.

“When I went to pay the barman said I’d paid already,” reported one woman allegedly victimized at a bar in Tel Aviv. “I don’t know what happened, I don’t remember. What’s certain is that my money disappeared, I had like 10 shekels left and I’d had 700 and change. I couldn’t figure out how four beers and three chasers could cost so much.”

When a police investigator asked who had brought her the drinks, she said, “every time it was a different barman,” and said she had not seen anyone putting anything into her drinks.

Police in the Tel Aviv district, which where most rape drug complaints are filed, have decided to focus on the drugs’ importers and dealers, who are generally not members of criminal organizations but ordinary citizens who order the drugs online. The drug is relatively inexpensive – 1,500 shekels ($432) for two liters.

But even in instances where the police have been able to arrest a dealer, the courts have tended to be lenient, sentencing the dealer to community service or relatively short prison terms.

In 2010, Yaniv Mizrahi was arrested for importing large quantities of GBL. Although a search of his home turned up various types of drugs and a stolen pistol, in a plea agreement Tel Aviv District Court Judge Judith Amsterdam sentenced Mizrahi to only eight months’ imprisonment. Mizrahi actually appealed that sentence, but the Supreme Court rejected his appeal. Justice Hanan Melcer criticized the light sentence, noting that GBL can be used as a date-rape drug.

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