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Drug-Facilitated Sexual Assaults

Date Published
November 9, 2017

Sidebar to the article Sexual Assault Cases: Exploring the Importance of Non-DNA Forensic Evidence by Heather Waltke, Gerald LaPorte, Danielle Weiss, Dawn Schwarting, Minh Nguyen, and Frances Scott.

Drug-facilitated sexual assaults (DFSA) are increasing nationwide, especially among college-age women.[1] Alcohol and drugs are common contributors to sexual assault, especially assaults committed by acquaintances, because they can cause diminished capacity and make a person vulnerable to their surroundings. Depending on the drug, effects can be felt as quickly as 20 minutes after ingestion and can cause amnesia for up to 8 hours. Whether a “date-rape” drug such as alprazolam (Xanax) or gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB) is unknowingly ingested or a mainstream party drug such as alcohol, methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (Ecstasy), or marijuana is used voluntarily, the identification of these substances through toxicological testing may offer a jury compelling evidence indicating a victim’s inability to have consented to the advances of an alleged assailant.[2]

Ensuring that toxicological testing is completed in a timely manner[3] is paramount due to the rapid metabolic process and excretion rates of many drugs.[4] NIJ is currently supporting research to explore new ways of extending the testing window to allow drugs to be detected days or even weeks after ingestion.[5] This novel research is looking at complexes formed between proteins in the blood and the drug, which remain in the blood for weeks after ingestion. This could offer evidence of a victim’s incapacitation in cases where reporting of the assault is delayed.

Toxicological testing is complicated by the emergence over the past decade of “designer” drugs, which may not be detectable using a lab’s usual methods.[6] NIJ-supported research has also confirmed that many of these drugs break down very rapidly in blood or urine, even in samples that have already been collected and refrigerated or frozen, as they would be in a suspected DFSA case.[7] Drugs also are broken down into metabolites by the body, and little is known about the metabolites of these new drugs. Often, these metabolites are present at higher levels than the original drug, so it is critical to be able to identify them if present in the body of a DFSA victim. NIJ is committed to supporting research to identify these metabolites, determine which new drugs are being abused, and develop new methods for identifying these emerging drugs.[8]

About This Article

This article was published as part of NIJ Journal issue number 279, published April 2018, as a sidebar to the article Sexual Assault Cases: Exploring the Importance of Non-DNA Forensic Evidence by Heather Waltke, Gerald LaPorte, Danielle Weiss, Dawn Schwarting, Minh Nguyen, and Frances Scott.

Date Created: November 9, 2017