Israeli Medical Staff Now Required to Test for 'Date-rape Drug' in Sex Assault Cases

Such tests have until now been the discretion of of medical staff, and new procedures require immediate freezing of samples

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FILE PHOTO: Bottles of GHB , also known as the “date-rape drug.”
FILE PHOTO: Bottles of GHB , also known as the “date-rape drug.”Credit: David Bloom / QMI Agency
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

The Health Ministry issued new regulations to make it easier to identify the use of a “date-rape drug” in cases of sexual assault.

The new rules, distributed to hospital directors and the division heads of HMOs last week, for the first time lay out clear and obligatory procedures for conducting the tests to identify the presence of such drugs in women who have complained of sexual assault under the influence of such incapacitating substances.

Traces of such drugs are difficult to find because they usually disappear from the body in less than 12 hours.

Until now, testing for date-rape drugs was at the discretion of the medical staff involved. The new rules require medical staff to take blood and urine samples in every case of a report of suspected sexual assault that may involve alcohol or any other suspected substances. Even in cases in which the victim feels paralyzed or unable to respond, it is now required to take blood and urine samples immediately.

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“Over the years, many hundreds of complaints were recorded of women who were sexually assaulted through the use of ‘date-rape drugs,’” said Dr. Ronny Berkowitz, the director of the Health Ministry’s division of Enforcement and Inspection, who is behind the initiative for the new regulations. But it was impossible to verify in the laboratory the vast majority of the claims of the use of the drugs, said Berkowitz.

“The reason is related to the speed in which these substances dissipate from the body, in a period of hours, but also because of the lack of an established procedure that describes the order of immediate actions that must be taken the minute cases of this type reach the medical system” added Berkowitz.

Lacking such official procedures, the decision to take blood and urine samples to identify the use of date-rape drugs was at the discretion of the medical staff treating the specific victim. “Even in cases in which urine samples were taken within f hours, they were not frozen and in practice they were useless even before they reached the lab,” said Berkowitz. Until now, the Health Ministry has received only a few samples of date-rape drugs for testing every year.

Because the drugs dissipate so quickly, the new regulations require freezing samples immediately. “Freezing the sample is critical and has not been required by any procedure until now,” said Berkowitz. “It enables dealing with the sample over a period of six months.”

The group of date-rape drugs includes substances with a sedative or sleep-inducing effect such as ketamine, Gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB) and gamma-Butyrolactone (GBL). It also includes strong tranquilizers, hypnotics and central nervous system depressants such as flunitrazepam and nitrazepam, along with many others.

“Remnants of date rape drugs disappear from bodily fluids in eight to 10 hours, when we are talking about GBL, and up to a day or two in the case of Ketamine or Flunitrazepam,” states the new regulations. “Recently, we have witnessed an abundance of cases of the victims of sexual assault who were possibly exposed to a ‘date-rape drug,’ but remnants of the substance were not found in their bodies. This fact makes it difficult to continue treatment from the clinical aspect, and from the aspect of legal evidence.”

The new procedures also stipulate that the Health Ministry will bear the costs of sending the frozen samples to the only lab in Israel that now carries out the tests for date-rape drugs, at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, near Tel Aviv.

It is also worth noting that scientific possibilities exist to identify remnants of the drug much later, sometimes even up to six months after the incident. But no laboratory exists in Israel that conducts such tests, and only a few such labs exist anywhere in the world – including in Italy, France and the United States. In light of the existing difficulties in identifying the presence of the drug immediately, Israeli hospitals often send hair samples from the complainants for testing outside of Israel, but these tests are relatively expensive.

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