Josée Saulnier arrived in Halifax on Jan. 17 with a few of her classmates, ready to celebrate two big life milestones.
The tourism management student was turning 20, and is a few months away from graduating. She wanted one big night out before the next chapter of her life began, and she had travelled to the big city from the small town where she was studying to have a memorable evening with her friends.
Instead, Saulnier ended up in the hospital in the early hours of Jan. 18, her muscles numbed and vision blurred by a mystery drug she believes was slipped into her drink.
After only a few drinks, Saulnier said, she suddenly started throwing up. Her friends called a cab to take them back to their Airbnb. When they arrived, Saulnier said they noticed she had “lost control” of her body, and decided to call 911. An ambulance took her to the hospital.
“Thank God my friends were with me,” she said.
Saulnier went back to the Airbnb the morning of Jan. 18, but returned to the hospital when her symptoms didn’t improve. During her recovery, she filed a police report. She also shared videos of herself on Facebook struggling to walk. In a video posted Jan. 19, she is holding onto the couch for support as she struggles to move her legs.
Saulnier said she shared the videos because she wanted to raise awareness about what happened to her, and to fight the feeling of shame many victims of drugging and/or sexual assault often feel after the fact.
It’s difficult to know how many people across Canada are covertly drugged, but medical experts say cases like Saulnier’s are probably more common than reported. Many never report the incident, or if they do, nothing comes of it. This is because doctors say so-called “date-rape” drugs are difficult to detect and may not show up on hospital tests.
Saulnier said the number of people who reached out after the videos went viral showed her she’d done the right thing.
Despite three hospital visits and after effects that lasted for almost a week, she still doesn’t know what she was drugged with. During her first hospital visit in Halifax, Saulier said she wasn’t tested for “date-rape” substances.
“They said that there’s so many drugs out there … where do they start?” she said.
Yet she said hospital staff told her that a woman had been drugged at the same establishment just a week earlier.
“This isn’t something that’s uncommon,” Saulnier said, adding she thinks incidents of drugging — whether or not they end in sexual assault — should be better tracked.
She’s not the first person to raise the point.
‘They need to be believed’
In November 2018, the Nova Scotia Chiefs of Police Association said it would make drink tampering a priority issue, after several cases of suspected drugging were reported in downtown Halifax.
A Freedom-of-information request by The Canadian Press revealed that Halifax police don’t track cases of drink tampering. A police spokesperson said more victims need to report these incidents so they can be tracked.
Dr. Mark Yarema, a toxicology expert with Alberta Health Services, said that even if victims do get tested at the hospital, results often aren’t conclusive. He said there’s very little data available on the prevalence of drink spiking for multiple reasons.
First, the most well-known of these so-called “date-rape” drugs, rohypnol (roofies) and gamma hydroxybutyric acid (GHB), disappear from the system in a matter of hours, which he said makes them hard to detect in a urine test. They also have an amnesiac effect, meaning victims often black out entirely and can’t remember what happened.
Rohypnol is illegal in Canada, but GHB is available as a prescription medication used to treat sleep disorders. The effects of these drugs are amplified when mixed with alcohol, Yarema said, making the victim sleepy and appear to be much more drunk than might be consistent with the number of drinks they’ve had.
Besides these two drugs, Yarema said there’s a wide array of substances used in drink spiking cases, including common prescriptions such as Ritalin or various antidepressants that, when combined with alcohol, have effects similar to roofies or GHB.
Perhaps the most common such drug is alcohol itself, he said.
“The bottom line is to render (the victim) less capable of making proper decisions,” regardless of the substance used.
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In 2017, three Australian researchers published a systematic review of available research on drug-facilitated sexual assault (DFSA) in an effort to determine the prevalence of it and of drink-spiking.
They only found eight studies, one of which was done in Canada, that fit the bill. The researchers concluded that alcohol is the most common substance detected in suspected cases of DFSA, but that stronger policies need to be in place to encourage early responders to collect more information about suspected cases of drink-spiking.
According to Yarema it’s “highly likely” that the actual numbers are higher than what’s reported in the studies.
And he said there’s a third challenge when it comes to knowing just how often people like Saulnier are covertly drugged. Despite slowly changing attitudes, the feeling of shame after being drugged — especially when sexual assault is a factor — means many victims never report the incidents.
“First of all, it was never OK,” Yarema said. “But certainly in the era of Me Too and Time’s Up movements, I think it’s even more appropriate for us to … believe them. They need to be believed and they need to be supported.”
‘It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing’
That feeling of shame is a familiar one for Angela Petta, a real estate agent in Toronto.
In November 2001, when she was just 21, Petta’s drink was spiked during a night of dancing at a now-closed bar in the city’s Gay Village.
She often went there because she felt safer than at other bars. “It was a place that I always felt like I could drop the guard a little bit.”
Until last year, she didn’t feel comfortable telling anyone other than close friends and family, but she remembers the details of the night very clearly — right up until the drugs hit.
Petta and two friends were dancing in the club’s VIP section, when she briefly left her drink with a friend. When she returned, her friend had left, but her drink looked the same as when she’d left it.
“I took a couple of sips and I don’t remember anything else,” she said.
Her next memory was of waking up hunched over the dirty toilets in the basement bathroom. Her friend was sticking her fingers down her throat. Petta’s friends told her they had returned to the booth to find her passed out on the seat with a red-headed man leaning over her.
They got her outside, where Petta vomited and passed out again. The next thing she knew, she was in the hospital, where tests determined she’d been given a near-lethal dose of rohypnol.
Petta didn’t call the bar or try to file a police report, and though she returned to her old haunt, she never drank there again.
For years, Petta said she felt ashamed of that night. Now, almost two decades later, she knows better.
“It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. It doesn’t matter where you’re dancing or how you’re dancing or how much you’re drinking. If anybody crosses the line and breaks a law, that is not on the victim,” she said.
With files from The Canadian Press