Jordan: If you’ve spent an evening anywhere people gather for drinks and a good time over the past three decades or so, you’ve probably seen a poster or heard a warning, watch your drink. Don’t leave it unattended. If in doubt pour it out. It’s not a new problem. It is a chillingly persistent one. It is also an issue for which Canada is still struggling to find a coherent strategy and for all those warnings and awareness campaigns, unless you’ve been a victim of these drugs, you’re probably underestimating the effect they can have. That was driven home in December in a series of viral videos that documented one young woman’s week long recovery from a drug slipped into her drink at a bar. How big was the dose she got? Don’t know. What drug was it exactly? Also don’t know how many other women were targeted in the same establishment? At least one, but beyond that, we don’t know. Before you can find the solution to a problem, you have to understand the scope of it. And we’re still grappling with the fact that these anecdotal stories in viral videos and occasionally even charges and convictions are likely just the tip of the iceberg. So how can we see what’s underneath the water?
I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Rosa Saba reports at the Calgary bureau for The Star, but this time she covered something out on the East Coast. Hi Rosa.
Rosa: Hi. How are you?
Jordan: I’m doing well. A little more disturbed after reading your report, but why don’t you start by telling me about Josee Saulnier, what happened to her?
Rosa: Sure. So Josee is a 20 year old student in Nova Scotia. Um, she travelled with some of her classmates to Halifax on January 17th to celebrate her birthday or 20th birthday. Um, as well as kind of, she described it just kind of like her last big night out. So she’s, you know, in her last semester, she’s looking forward to graduating and starting her career, and she wanted to have one night out with her friends, celebrate her birthday, celebrate the next chapter of her life. Um, but unfortunately it did not end well. So they went out to a few, a few bars, a few clubs. She describes it as, she had a few drinks, not a lot. Um, but what happened was she started vomiting. She started getting sick at the second place they went to, and her friends took her home. When they took her home to the Airbnb uh, she started losing control of her legs, so they were numb. She couldn’t walk properly. Her vision was blurring. They knew something was wrong, and so they called 911 and brought her to the hospital where she was told that her drink had likely been drugged. So not a great end to a birthday. Luckily, obviously her friends were with her. Um, but those effects lasted for more than a week. So Josee shared a few videos on Facebook showing her completely unable to walk. She needs to have people helping her. She can’t control her legs, and obviously a very, very frightening experience and not what she was planning at all.
Jordan: Tell me a little bit more about the videos, maybe describe them a bit and, and why did they go so viral? Because these things are really spread.
Rosa: So there’s a couple of videos. One of them is shared, uh, the evening after that night out. And then one of them was shared the day after that, January 19th. And I found that one really striking because she’s in a living room, I believe she’s at home with her parents and she tries to stand up from the couch. She needs help standing up from the couch. And she’s holding onto the couch with one of her arms and then both of her arms, she’s trying to move her legs and you can tell that she can’t really, she can’t really move her knees properly. Her legs are kind of flopping around. It looks like she barely has any control of them. And this is a day and a half after the drug. And I think the why these went viral– I mean, there’s two reasons. One is it’s, it’s striking when we think of what people call date rape drugs, we don’t realize the kinds of effects they can have. Maybe we think of someone passing out, someone having amnesia. We don’t think of someone completely losing control of their limbs for multiple days. And the second reason that I think that her videos went viral is just because people don’t share these experiences. If you do get drugged or you believe you’ve been drugged, you know, most people wouldn’t share a video of themselves and say, look, this happened to me. So I think it’s, it’s the honesty combined with sort of the shock of what those drugs did to her that made these videos resonate with people across Canada.
Jordan: How unusual is that, uh, when you talk to doctors or people at the hospital, for those symptoms to last so long afterwards? I mean, you reported that she was still feeling the effects almost a week later, and to your point, yes, that is, I mean, maybe stupidly, but not something that I would have associated with these kind of drugs.
Rosa: It’s not something I would have associated with it either. But when I talked to a doctor here with Alberta Health Services, Dr Mark Yarema, he said it’s actually more common than you think. It definitely depends on the drug. It depends on the dose. It depends on the person, but he said it’s not uncommon for the effects of these drugs to last up to two weeks.
Jordan: So, I mean, the act, sadly, the act of, uh, someone being given these drugs, uh, and getting sick is not news. It happens a lot. But one of the things you kind of delved into is what we still don’t understand, uh, about the problem as a whole. What, what are we missing? What pieces are there– aren’t still not there?
Rosa: Well, data is definitely a big part of it. I mean, the first thing I did. Is, is try and find data on how many people have their drink spiked or a drugged, uh, on a night out. And there, there simply is not conclusive like conclusive data. There’s been a few studies done on, uh, DFSA, which is the acronym for drug assisted sexual assault. There have been studies like toxicology studies on those people to try and determine how many of them were drugged with what we think of as the common date rape drugs, which are, uh, roofies, or Rohypnol, and GHB, which is gamma-hydroxybutyric acid. Those are the common ones. And those studies that the toxicology studies have found that the numbers of those are very low, but there’s a number of reasons why. Why that doesn’t mean that drinks spiking is low. First of all, those are not the only drugs that are used in drink spiking. You can use almost anything. Dr Yarema told me like it’s, you could use Ritalin, you can use antidepressants. I mean, any of these drugs combined with alcohol are bound to affect somebody. And as he pointed out, many people are simply plied with alcohol, and that counts as well as drug facilitated sexual assault. So it’s, it’s hard to tell just how many people are purposely drugged. Um, it’s hard to tell what’s maybe a combination of alcohol and a medication they’re already on. It also doesn’t help that both Rohypnol or roofie’s and GHB disappear from the blood system really, really quickly, between six to 12 hours, but often even less than that. And so if someone is tested, which they often aren’t, those drugs might not show up. So first of all, studies make it very difficult to tell when someone is purposely drugged. And second of all, that data isn’t even collected in most hospitals, primarily because it would just be so difficult to get data we can rely on.
Jordan: When you spoke to people at hospitals and elsewhere, what do they suggest we could do maybe to get a better sense of the picture? Is there anything or is it just sort of the nature of this particular beast?
Rosa: Well, obviously, uh, one thing as well that I, that I should’ve mentioned that really affects us not knowing the scale of this problem is the fact that many people don’t report this. We all know that there’s a huge stigma attached to sexual assault, and while not all cases of drink spiking end in sexual assault, like Josee, luckily she had her friends with her. Um, there’s still kind of an element of, of shame. This is something that we know our society is, is slowly progressing with, but, but we’re definitely still not there. And a lot of young women are taught to watch their drinks. Don’t drink too much, you know, don’t wear, don’t wear the wrong thing. And so there is an, I mean, another, another person who was a victim of drink spiking who I spoke to, she’s in the article, Angela Petta, that’s what, that’s what she said. She said when she, when she realized she’d been drugged, she didn’t want to report it because she felt ashamed. She even had people in her life tell her, well, you should have been more careful. So one of the things that, that the doctor I spoke to really wanted to highlight was, first of all, if you’re the victim, report it, go to the hospital as soon as possible if you believe you’ve been drugged. If you’re the friend of the victim, believe them, bring them to the hospital so they can get tested. And if you’re a medical professional, believe them and test them. I think that that’s one of the really, one of the really big barriers is people not getting tested, people not reporting these things soon enough and people not believing each other.
Jordan: I wanted to go back to Josée’s experience in particular because it also illustrates something else about the larger problem. So tell me about what happened when she discussed her incident in particular and where it happened with people at the hospital.
Rosa: Sure. So she actually went to the hospital three times as she went, obviously the night that it happened, and she was not tested for, for date rape drugs, um. She said that hospital staff told her there were so many different drugs that could be used, that testing would basically like, it’s, there’s so many different substances that they have to test for that it’s often not conclusive and not very helpful. This, despite the fact that she says, they also told her someone had been drugged at the same establishment just a week prior. Um, I mean, in a hospital, obviously you trust medical professionals, and, and if they, if they tell you. Something isn’t worth it, or if they don’t do something often, especially if you’re under the influence of a substance, you’re probably not going to question it. So she didn’t question it. They took care of her. They sent her home. Um, or sorry to the Airbnb. Uh, she woke up a few hours later, still felt absolutely terrible, went back to the hospital, and then her third hospital visit was actually back home. So she went to see her family doctor a few days later, he sent her to the hospital again, and she said that the medical professionals there were very frustrated that she hadn’t been tested because by then it was too late to test her. Um, and, and well, once again, when I, when I spoke to the, to the doctor who explained the effects of these drugs, I understand that there’s a lot of substances that one can test for and that can make it difficult for hospital professionals. But I can also understand the frustration from, from other medical professionals, and not knowing what she had been drugged with. They think it was some kind of paralytic, which is why the effects were much more on her body, on her muscles as opposed to her brain. But she’ll never know.
Jordan: And the other striking part of what you just said is that the hospital staff was like, Oh yes, there’s been another one from this particular place. So what happens after hospital staff make that connection is, is this establishment on the radar of the police in Halifax? Like what happens once it becomes clear there’s a pattern?
Rosa: Well, this has actually come up before in Halifax specifically. So there were a number a in 2018 sorry, late 2018 there were a number of public cases of drink spiking and Halifax at various clubs to the point where, you know, there was a little bit of a public outcry of the Canadian press did a freedom of information request to find out whether there was data on this. And that’s when they found out that Halifax hospitals weren’t uh, tracking, drink tampering or, sorry, Halifax police weren’t, weren’t tracking a drink, tampering because they said that the statistics of reports of drink tampering didn’t warrant putting in the effort to track that data. There was obviously, after that request, there was a bit of a public outcry, especially from victims. And so the association of police chiefs in Nova Scotia agreed to look into it. Um, but the biggest thing that they did at that time was to call for people to report it. So they said, because the data in terms of how many people who had actually reported it was so small, they didn’t have an idea of the scale of it. And the more people who came forward to report it, the more clear it would become of how big of an issue it was, and that could lead to better data gathering.
Jordan: So about a year later, Josee follows that procedure and reports it and they don’t test her.
Rosa: Correct. She has filed a police report. I checked up with her yesterday and she says she’s, she, uh, she’s assured that an investigation is ongoing, but she hasn’t heard anything yet.
Jordan: Do we have any numbers or even any comment from the police in Halifax, sort of what they saw in that year after they vowed to do better?
Rosa: Uh, unfortunately not. No. This is something that takes time. And I, and I think that what they said about it being important for people to report is very telling, um, about, about, like the fact that I think they believe it’s a bigger issue than then the numbers show. But the unfortunate fact is if we don’t know when people have been drugged, we have no way of knowing how big of an issue is. With data gathering, this is something that, that can take a little bit of time to build up. So unfortunately, we don’t have an idea of that just yet. Um, but I am hoping that the prevalence of people coming forward and saying this has happened to me. I mean, I’ve obviously Josee’s video went viral. Um, those very public cases in 2018 were very widely read about. And hopefully that’ll, you know, make it easier for people to come forward and talk about it. And then in a few years we might have a better idea of the problem.
Jordan: In the meantime, when you talk to experts on this, what do they recommend that people do? Because you know, this is not a new issue and it seems kind of crappy to me that, you know, a decade later, more than a decade later, the best advice we still have is like, Hey, watch your drink, be careful.
Rosa: Well, one of the things that really struck me, and you know, it’s hard to find a positive in a story like this, but the one positive I did find was when I spoke to Angela, the Toronto woman, who’s also, whose story is later on in my article, she spoke to me about an incident that happened to her in 2001. And aside from a few of her friends and family members, she had told no one about that because she said that she really felt ashamed. And in fact, her boyfriend at the time, his first reaction was, you should have been more careful. She felt ashamed. And then, you know, here we are almost 20 years later, she’s going on the record with a national newspaper saying what happened. So I asked her, you know what, what drove you to to reach out and to say I’m willing to talk about this? And she said that she felt like society has changed enough that she no longer feels as ashamed. She’s done some work herself and realized that it wasn’t her fault. And she does feel like, especially, you know, this gets said a lot, but, uh, you know, in the, in the me too era and the era of people coming forward and talking about instances of being taken advantage of instances of sexual assault, she felt like she was going to be believed and she didn’t have anything to be ashamed about. So that, that was a big positive for me. It’s why I ended with Angela’s story. And I think that that, that, you know, one of the things we can do other than just telling people to watch their drink or not drink too much or something like that, which puts the onus on the potential victim, it’s to believe people, if they say something is wrong, believe them. If you’re out with your friend and your friend has had two or three drinks and they’re stumbling all over the place, or they’re vomiting or they’re not acting in a way that’s consistent with how much they’ve had to drink, even if they don’t realize it, you need to do something because it’s better safe than sorry. You never know what’s going to happen. The most important thing is if someone is clearly under the influence of something that is stronger than they are, um, you get them out of there, you take them to the hospital, you make sure they don’t go home alone. The onus is, is to be, you know, to take care of other people. And I think that’s what Josee’s friends did, right? She started vomiting, she’d only had a few drinks, they knew something was wrong. They got back to the Airbnb and she couldn’t walk. And they knew that this was more than just alcohol. Right. So it’s very important to, to believe people and to watch out for each other. I did speak to a few other people who didn’t make it into the story, and they said that the way that it felt to them was essentially they’d had one or two drinks and it felt like they’d had way more, and I think that’s a big warning signal for people. All of these drugs affect people differently, but the most common sign is acting and feeling way more drunk than is warranted given the amount of alcohol you’ve had. And so I think that I’d like to put the onus on other people, not on the victim, but on, on their friends, on the medical professionals, on, on the police to just, just believe them and test them and make sure that they’re okay because it’s always better safe than sorry. And it’s also never their fault.
Jordan: And finally, I guess, what about on a more macro level, I know we mentioned not much is being done, but there are sort of small initiatives in Halifax and elsewhere. What would health professionals and people who deal with this like to see and is there any push for that anywhere?
Rosa: Once again, it’s, it’s difficult because of the range of drugs that can be used and, and as, as Dr Yarema pointed out, it’s a very good point, the most common so-called date rape drug is alcohol itself. So it’s hard, it’s kind of hard to, to, to call for a change when the change you’re calling for is for people to stop plying women or vulnerable people with alcohol and drugs. I do think that there’s obviously been a push for more data collection. I think that if more people are tested when they come in for suspected drugging, as well as just reporting it, um, that’s, that’s all that’s going to, you know, give us a better idea of the scale of the problem. Um, I, I wish I, I wish I had more to say on that. I know that, you know, I see a lot of, I see a story every, every year or so about some new technology that’s going to help women tests and see if their drink has been, has been drugged. And it’s unfortunate that that kind of technology is going forward and is being, is being created every year. Um, but we still don’t have an idea of what’s going on, but at the same time, hopefully the more, hopefully the more stories like this that, that are public, the more people will be aware of it. I know once again, Angela, who I spoke to for this article said that this actually almost happened to her a second time, but another man at the bar saw someone try to spike her drink and warned her. That’s what we want to see, right? Like we want, we want people to be more vigilant. We want people to notice when this is happening, believe someone when they believe it’s happened to them. And hopefully just move forward. If Angela says that in almost 20 years time, she feels more comfortable sharing this, I hope that in 20 years we’ve moved forward just as much, if not more.
Jordan: I hope so too. Thanks, Rosa.
Rosa: Thank you.
Jordan: Rosa Saba is a reporter at the Calgary Bureau of the Toronto Star, and this was The Big Story, and if you’d like more, you can head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can talk to us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. You can find us wherever you get your podcasts. Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify. Doesn’t matter. If you want more from Frequency go to frequencypodcastnetwork.com. Claire Brassard is the lead producer of The Big Story. Ryan Clarke and Stefanie Phillips are our associate producers. And Annalise Nielsen is our digital editor, and I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. Thanks for listening. Have a great weekend. We’ll talk Monday.
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