Israeli Women Increasingly Request Date-rape Drug Tests

Bar Peleg
Ido Efrati
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A haul of the date-rape drug GBH seized by Canadian police in Edmonton, Alberta in 2013.
A haul of the date-rape drug GBH seized by Canadian police in Edmonton, Alberta in 2013.Credit: David Bloom/Edmonton Sun/QMI Agency
Bar Peleg
Ido Efrati

The number of tests administered on women seeking to detect if they were surreptitiously exposed to a date-rape drug rose significantly over the past year, data obtained by Haaretz shows.

So far this year, Israeli hospitals have sent blood and urine samples from 90 women for lab tests to detect traces of the drug, compared to 29 samples in all of 2020 and 41 in 2019.

In the past three years, the number of women requesting tests for the drug using hair samples, which can detect traces for up to six months after ingestion, also rose.

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GHB is the most prevalent date-rape drug in Israel and the most difficult to detect, because traces disappear after 8 to 10 hours of ingestion, Health Ministry experts said. That makes hair sampling particularly significant, since in some cases, traces can be detected for up to six months.

Israel’s Supreme Court recently handed down severe sentences to three people convicted of dealing in GHB, in three separate cases.

“The drug is very common in Israel, not only as a date-rape drug. It’s mainly used as a party drug,” the director of the Health Ministry’s enforcement and inspection division, Dr. Ronny Berkovitz, said of GHB. “Since GHB is widely used, sometimes it’s difficult to tie it specifically to use as a rape drug. People who are caught in possession [of it] say, ‘We brought the drug but not to use it as a rape drug.’”

According to data obtained by Haaretz, 53 women have submitted requests to the Health Ministry to test their hair for GHB since 2019, compared to just 10 between 2016 and 2018. Most of the requests related to legal action taken by the women.

There has also been a sharp increase in the number of tests administered by hospitals in connection with sexual assault investigations over the past year, the Knesset Research and Information Center has reported. GHB was not detected in any of the samples, but traces of other drugs were found in some of them.

Health Ministry officials attribute the increase in hospital testing to a ministry circular requiring that urine and blood samples be taken in cases of suspected sexual assault. The hospitals are required to report positive test results to the Health Ministry.

According to Public Security Ministry statistics, between 2018 and 2020, a total of 366 criminal investigations were opened in cases involving date-rape drugs, including 281 for possession of drugs not for personal consumption. Forty-two of the cases were closed for lack of evidence. 

Last year Police Superintendent Gal Sapan, who heads the Israel Police sexual offenses investigation unit, told the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality that only rarely have investigations resulted in criminal charges for what, in the dating context for example, is described as depriving someone of the ability to resist.

In 2017, four Knesset members proposed making it a criminal offense to drug another person, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, but the bill was shelved. Yael Sherer, the founder and director of the Lobby to Combat Sexual Violence, noted that Israel’s criminal code includes a law barring poisoning another person, which is punishable by three years in prison – and 14 years if the perpetrator endangered the victim’s life or caused extreme injury.

A Tel Aviv protest against violence against women, 2020. Credit: Meged Gozani

“We hope the Justice Ministry and the state prosecutor begin invoking the anti-poisoning law that’s already on the books to increase the number of convictions in this area,” Sherer said.

The only person in Israel who has ever been convicted based on traces of a date-rape drug found in a hair sample is Shmuel Ben Abu, who in February 2020 was convicted of offenses including depriving someone of the ability to resist. According to the indictment against him, for years Ben Abu, who lived in the Western Galilee, put a rape drug in drinks that he gave women whom he had met under various circumstances.

He allegedly performed indecent acts on his victims, filmed them nude and extorted hundreds of thousands of shekels from them. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison by Nazareth District Court Judge Hanna Sabbagh, for sexual assault on a woman whom he had given a date-rape drug.

The testing on the woman’s hair was performed by an international expert in the field, Italian professor Franco Tagliaro, who extracted liquid from the hair. The judge ruled that the test results were admissible as evidence.

Ben Abu’s lawyers, Keren Maman and Elad Belaish, who represented him via the Public Defender’s Office, argued in court that the laboratory test was not accorded recognition in any important forensic report and that its results had never before been used to convict anyone. They asked the judge to consider the rate at which the method produces false-positive results. Ben Abu has appealed his conviction, and the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case in December.

Not everyone in law enforcement is convinced of the reliability of the hair testing. Last year, the director of testing at the Abu Kabir Institute of Forensic Medicine in Tel Aviv, Dr. Ricardo Nachman, told the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women that for the legal establishment, “only blood can determine if a person was exposed” to a date-rape drug at the time of an assault. The hair test, he said, “doesn’t indicate the date of the attack. It could be before or after the incident, and that’s a problem that we should all know about.”

The police and the prosecution know that a hair test alone is insufficient for conviction, Nachman claimed. “Ben Abu’s case didn’t rely only on the new type of test. In fact, it was submitted initially with circumstantial evidence and without the result of the test, out of a presumption that there was sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction” even without the hair test, he said.

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