Professor, staff speak at forum on date rape drugs

A forum on date rape drugs organized by the Rape and Sexual Assault Network was held last Wednesday in Goodrich living room. The forum’s goal was to provide education and a place for discussion about date rape drugs, which are a growing concern on the Williams campus.

Joseph Chihade, professor of chemistry, spoke first. Last year, Chihade taught a course entitled “Fighting Disease: The Evolution and Operation of Human Medicines.” The course included discussions of drugs typically classified as date rape drugs, such as rohypnol, or “roofies,” and gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB).

Chihade explained that these drugs have extremely similar characteristics to other anti-anxiety drugs such as valium and that they all “do more or less the same thing,” but to varying degrees. In particular, these drugs inhibit the way in which a neurotransmitter works so that it is “harder for a signal to travel through the nervous system.”

One particular concern about date rape drugs is their use in conjunction with alcohol. “The biggest worry with these drugs is that alcohol does more or less the same thing,” said Chihade. Taken together, the two create what he called a “synergetic effect,” increasing the difficulty of transmitting signals through the nervous system to an even greater degree. While rohyprol is illegal, and somewhat more difficult to procure, GHB is “actually ridiculously easy to make because it is made from compounds that are easily commercially available,” according to Chihade. A key concern is that the “person who is giving you the drug doesn’t know the dosage.” Since the way in which it is made is unregulated, it can vary a great deal.

Ruth Harrison, director of health services, spoke next. She described the typical procedures the health center would follow upon the delivery of a person suspected to have been given a date rape drug.

First, the person on duty would ask what substances the person consumed, including alcohol. Next, the health center would likely call the hospital because there is “no way of determining if she’s in real physical danger” and there is no antidote or reversal known for date rape drugs. Furthermore, there is no life support available at the health center in the case of respiratory depression which, depending on the dosage, can occur in reaction to date rape drugs.

Harrison explained that “our initial concern is safety” but the health center is also available for support and is “not going to be intrusive.”

Jean Thorndike, director of Security, then outlined Security’s response scenario. Upon finding the student in question, she said, “we would probably assume it’s alcohol related.”

After taking the student to the health center, Security would stay with the nurse if necessary and wait for the ambulance if hospitalization was required. They would then collect information about the circumstances surrounding the incident, including going back to the party to speak with the officer on duty and attempting to locate the victim’s friends to question them about the event.

Thorndike noted, though, that gathering accurate information can be difficult, especially in a case in which the victim is not taken to the health center, but instead awakes in the morning with no recollection of the evening.

“Having that blank is very upsetting,” explained Harrison. She said the best course of action would still be to go to the health center, where staff would try to find out where the victim’s memory ends for the previous evening and attempt to reconstruct the lost portion of the evening..

Also, said Harrison, “we would encourage her to go to the hospital depending on how much time had passed,” in order that tests be performed quickly. “We might try to get them in touch with someone via the hotline or come back on Monday and see one of the counselors,” she continued.

“Finding out [what happened] is really important,” she said. Thorndike said that “hopefully she [the victim] would have a support network of friends” who would be able to help her recall the evening and encourage her to call security in order to take her to the health center.

Thorndike described one GHB case which occurred at Williams several years ago. Two males had a reaction to the substance and began convulsing at the Purple Pub after they had attended a party where GHB had been passed out in drinks. Afterwards, the police helped security to interview students, but no arrests were made.

After the three main speakers finished, the audience asked specific questions about the drug.

One person asked what would happen if someone was caught with GHB or roofies on campus (as opposed to having actually laced someone’s drink with it). Thorndike explained that the decision is left up to the dean and that the “police are not involved at that point in time.”

Ari Schoenholtz ’05 asked about the prevention of harmful situations and the use of date rape drugs. Members of the Rape and Sexual Assault Hotline had several suggestions. One method of prevention is for students drinking at a party to use more than one cup , so that if someone puts his or her cup down, that person does not need to pick it up again, thereby ruling out the possibility that the drink had been tainted while he or she was not looking.

Also, it is very important for students to watch out for themselves and their friends. Someone who has consumed some form of date rape drug will likely appear more inebriated than they normally would, considering the amount of alcohol consumed.

All participants agreed that awareness is the main concern. Although security tries to put out a campus notification of any significant problems, Harrison noted that it is quite “hard to get a confirmed case” of the use of date rape drugs since “someone usually doesn’t come down to the health center” or it is “often more than 12 hours later.”

The Health Center is currently engaged in a campaign to educate the student body about the presence and effects of date rape drugs and ways to prevent becoming a victim.