The Nicola Furlong murder trial in Japan once again highlighted the spectre of drinks-spiking. But just how much of a danger is it posing in the pubs and clubs of Ireland, wonders John Hearne
ONE of the most disturbing images to emerge from the Nicola Furlong murder trial in Tokyo was that of Nicola and her friend, passed out in wheelchairs, being conveyed from the lobby of the hotel to the rooms upstairs.
American James Blackston was subsequently convicted of sexually assaulting Nicola’s friend in a taxi that night. Identified in court as ‘Victim B’, the woman said that she blacked out after drinking tequila that Blackston had given her.
The prevalence of drink-spiking has always been a controversial subject. While research has suggested it is not as common as believed, it’s still not that difficult to find testimony which affirms that it does happen.
Cliona Saidlear of Rape Crisis Network Ireland says she’s in no doubt that drink spiking is a real phenomenon. “What we experience is people coming into us and saying, ‘Look I don’t know what happened last night’, or ‘I’ve a blank, and that never happens when I drink’.”
“They will say: ‘I had three drinks and next thing I woke up in some strange bed’, or ‘I woke up naked in my own bed.’ People will say that they have some physical evidence that they had sex last night but they can’t account for it.”
However, a 2009 study of more than 200 students by the University of Kent revealed that many of them wrongly blamed the effects of excessive alcohol consumption on so called date-rape drugs like Rohypnol. The study, published by the British Journal of Criminology, said three-quarters of students questioned believed that drink-spiking was a more significant risk factor in sexual assault than alcohol. Researchers said that despite these beliefs, police have found no evidence that these drugs are commonly used in sexual assaults.
Though we’ve had no robust research into the incidence of drink-spiking in Ireland, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that there is heightened awareness of the risk.
Testifying before an Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children ten years ago, then Senator Mary Henry, who was a board member of the Rotunda hospital, said that some young women attending the sexual assault unit at the hospital didn’t know for sure if they had been raped or assaulted.
“They’re not actually claiming the drinks have been spiked, but they reckon they must have been,” she said. “But drugs like Rohypnol stay in the blood for 72 hours, and there hasn’t been a single positive test. It’s literally been excessive intake of alcohol.”
The implication — that drink spiking is an excuse for alcoholic excess — doesn’t always stand up. Three callers to Liveline last Tuesday told of drink-spiking experiences. In one, a French au-pair became violently ill outside a Galway pub and was subsequently found to have a so-called ‘date rape’ drug in her system. In another, a Co Wexford doorman told of an incident in which his soft drink was spiked, leading to more than 12 hours of complete memory loss.
While Cliona Saidlear at Rape Crisis Network Ireland does not doubt these experiences, she points out too that alcohol is by far the most significant drug in sexual assault. The network commissioned a report into rape and justice in Ireland four years ago. It found that in 80% of rape cases in Ireland, both perpetrator and victim have consumed alcohol. While it’s possible that some of this alcohol is consumed involuntarily, most of it is not. She points out, however, that making the distinction between voluntary and involuntary consumption in the context of a sexual assault involves a subtle shift of blame away from the perpetrator.
“You end up in the place where we are holding people who voluntarily consumed alcohol or drugs responsible in a way that we won’t hold someone who had their drink spiked responsible, when at the end of the day, the person who’s responsible is the person who chose to take an action when they saw someone vulnerable.”
The pervasiveness of drugs of any kind in sexual assault cases leads to all kinds of subsequent complications. “It’s incredibly difficult for someone,” says Saidlear. “A big part of the violence is that a lot of these women have no memory of it, so all that’s left to them is their imagination.”
Any subsequent prosecution is riven with problems, because the main witness cannot present a reliable version of events.
“And on top of that, you have attitudes, and attitudes are really important because the Director of Public Prosecutions makes an assessment of what the jury is going to make of the case, and unfortunately in Ireland we have the attitude that, well, if she went out and got herself that pissed… you know what the end of that sentence is.”
Avoiding Spiked Drinks
*The more you have to drink, the less likely you are to realise that your drink has been spiked.
*Don’t share other people’s drinks.
*Don’t steal drinks.
*Don’t accept drinks from strangers or people you don’t trust. If someone wants to buy you a drink, go to the bar with them so you can be sure of what you get.
*Drink bottles and keep your thumb over the top to stop anything being put in.
*Don’t leave your drink unattended. Take your drink to the toilets and dance floor with you.
*Non-alcoholic drinks like coke, tea or coffee can also be spiked.
*If you notice that your drink has been moved or looks different then don’t drink it.
— Courtesy of Spunout.ie
What to do if you think your drink has been spiked
*If you start to feel out of control, sick, very sleepy, lose consciousness or feel dizzy, then stay with friends and ask them to take care of you. You need to get help immediately as the effects of a spiked drink can quickly become worse.
*If you don’t feel well and a stranger tries to separate you from friends, or takes you somewhere isolated, then resist as much as possible. Scream for help, kick, push, do everything you can to avoid being alone with them.
*Don’t accept help from strangers or someone you don’t feel comfortable with.You could also ask the bar person for help or ask them to call you a taxi.
*If a friend collapses or loses consciousness, stay with them and call an ambulance.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved