How Date Rape Drugs Actually Work

Drinks4_GabrielaAlford PAGIllustrated by Gabriela Alford.
In a world where a fraternity has allegedly gone so far as to create a color-coded system to roofie female partygoers, it's tragically unsurprising to know that one in five women will be raped at some point in their lives.
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Although drug-facilitated rape — in which the victim is drugged without their knowledge — is less common than the victim voluntarily drinking or taking drugs, it does happen. And, it's difficult to know exactly how often it occurs, because victims may not even realize what happened.
Below are three of the most common drugs used in this situation and how they work in the body when mixed with alcohol (which is present immediately prior to two-thirds of sexual assaults, according to one study), showing just how devastating their effects can be when used to take advantage of another human being.
Gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB) is one of the most common date rape drugs. It's a metabolite of our main inhibitory neurotransmitter, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). In binding to GABA(B) and GHB receptors, the drug acts as a depressant, causing symptoms such as confusion, motor impairment, and amnesia. As a sodium salt, GHB is known as sodium oxybate and sold legally as Xyrem, a prescription sedative used to treat narcolepsy. It can come in pill or liquid form. Even though it has a salty taste, it can be difficult to detect in sweeter drinks.
Rohypnol (flunitrazepam) — commonly called "roofie" — is a heavy duty benzodiazepine (up to 10 times stronger than Valium) known as the date rape drug. Being a benzo, Rohypnol works in the brain by manipulating the signaling of GABA, this time through GABA(A) receptors. Because it works quickly to cause sedation and muscle relaxation, Rohypnol is prescribed (where it's legal) as a short-term treatment for insomnia and to induce anesthesia. Although it's legally manufactured and sold in Europe and Mexico, it's illegal in the U.S. But, Klonopin (clonazepam) and Xanax (alprazolam) are legal and similar enough to be used in the same way. Rohypnol was reformulated in the '90s to make alcohol appear cloudy or bright blue when mixed with the drug, but generic versions may not do the same.
Ketamine, a dissociative, is used legally as an anesthetic mostly in veterinary medicine. It mainly acts by blocking our NMDA glutamate receptors, which are heavily involved in learning and creating memories. This can cause confusion and lack of coordination. At higher doses, ketamine can also produce hallucinogenic effects and amnesia. Found in liquid or powder form, ketamine is extremely fast-acting.
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For all of these drugs, the one sign you may notice is feeling extra drunk even though you've only had your normal amount to drink. If that happens, immediately get to a safe place and get help. If you wake up and realize you can't remember much after drinking, notice your clothes are torn or aren't on right, or feel like you've had sex but can't remember, call 911 or have a friend take you to the emergency room for a rape kit. Other important instructions can be found at the Office of Women's Health site. Because Rohypnol leaves the body within 72 hours and GHB within just 12, there's only a small window in which they can be detected.
Obviously, in an ideal world, date rape drugs wouldn't even be a thing and, therefore, we wouldn't have to tell you about them. But, at least one simple training program for male college students has been shown to significantly help in rape prevention. We can only hope that more will follow, because we really can't depend on nail polish forever.
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