Amid an alarming rise in the use of so-called "date rape drugs," Atty. Gen. Janet Reno on Monday helped launch a national effort to warn college students of the dangers of two powerful substances that sexual predators use to knock out their victims before attacking them.
Appearing at the Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center, Reno outlined a campaign to flood college campuses with posters and other written information explaining the dangers of the drugs--Rohypnol and GHB--and to air public service announcements on the NBC television network this fall.
A few years ago, the drugs were practically unknown. Now, about seven women a month report to the Santa Monica center alone that they have been drugged and sexually assaulted, said Gail Abarbanel, the center's director. Last week, two men were sentenced to 77 years and 19 years, respectively, in what is believed to be the largest date rape drug case ever prosecuted in California.
The spread of the date rape drugs, Reno said, causes the reverse of the trauma that most rape victims suffer. Often, they are unable to forget how they suffered at the hands of a rapist. In rape drug cases, they are unable to remember.
"It's time for everyone in America to wake up to the threat," Reno said.
Reno's appearance underscored the breadth of a problem that is frustrating police, hospitals and rape victims. The two drugs--both odorless, nearly tasteless and potentially lethal--have become fixtures at parties and clubs in recent years. But many investigators and laboratories are still struggling to understand, trace and prosecute crimes--particularly sexual assaults--involving their use.
"These drugs make it very easy for rapists to commit their crimes," Abarbanel said. "The rapist doesn't have to use physical force. He doesn't have to use restraints. He doesn't even have to threaten harm to subdue the victim, and he doesn't have to worry about a victim's screams attracting attention."
Just as the drugs immobilize rape victims, they also tend to paralyze investigations of sex crimes. Often, victims who have been knocked out with the drugs wake up unsure of what happened. They may dismiss the assault without reporting it.
Rather than hesitate, victims must report the crime and seek medical treatment immediately, Abarbanel said, because the drugs can leave the system within hours. Even then, victims may wind up dealing with doctors or investigators unfamiliar with the drugs.
Abarbanel said one woman who believed that she had been assaulted was told by a law enforcement official: "He has his memory. You don't have yours. . . . Your case is closed."
After reviewing their investigative techniques late last year, the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department decided to seek urine samples from rape victims because traces of Rohypnol and GHB (gamma hydroxybutryrate) are evident longer in urine than in blood. Investigators are also being trained to look for evidence of the substances--residue on glasses, leftover drinks--at crime scenes.
As part of the campaign launched by Reno, the rape treatment center is distributing posters, fliers and bookmarks to colleges in 32 states in time for the fall semester. That material offers tips on how to avoid being drugged, and how to respond if you believe you have been sexually assaulted.
For women like Leilani, 20, it is already too late.
As a sophomore returning to a local college last fall, Leilani (who asked that her last name not be used) was invited to a fraternity party--a place where she had hoped to catch up with friends after having spent the summer at home. Not long after she arrived, a young man offered her a drink. She drank it--and blacked out almost instantly.
When she awoke, it was morning. Her pants were unzipped. She had been sexually assaulted. She reported the crime immediately, but university investigators did not collect physical evidence. Her case was never prosecuted.
Asked whether the campaign unveiled Monday would affect college students, Leilani said: "I don't know if I would've paid attention. But seeing something like that would have helped me know where to go" for treatment. She added that she believes that the drugs are "prevalent" on college campuses.
"I know it's out there," she said. "I know it's a danger."