In the spring of last year, a 21-year-old college student from Wisconsin named Julia Sumnicht decided that she needed to thaw out after a Midwestern winter. She flew to Miami, Florida, dreaming, I imagine, like so many of her peers, of sun and sand and drinks all the colors of confetti. But not for long.
Sumnicht died in Miami of an overdose of GHB, the shorthand name for gamma-hydroxybutyric acid. There are plenty of other names for GHB, ugly ones like Bedtime Scoop, Easy Lay, Grievous Bodily Harm. Because GHB - colorless, odorless, slightly salty but easily disguised by a fruity cocktail, a potent sedative with memory-damaging side effects – is one of today’s more popular date rape drugs.
According to an analysis done through the non-profit Project GHB, more than 20 people (mostly male) were killed every year between 1995 and 2005 by GHB overdoses. The researchers suggested, however, that their findings underestimated the problem because at many smaller hospitals the routine toxicology screen is not designed to detect the compound. At least it wasn’t back then.
Today, medical examiners are giving GHB and its ilk (Rohypnol, Lorazepam, Ketamine) more poisoning priority because, as a newly released national study warns, the practice of mixing date-rape drugs into drinks seems to be on rise in the United States. In the single year of 2009, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) 14,720 emergency room visits resulted from intentional poisonings and many resulted, apparently, from evenings at bars, clubs and parties.
“Approximately three in five (60 percent) drug-related ED visits attributed to intentional poisoning involved alcohol in combination with other drugs ,” the report notes. In other words, the classic date-rape drug scenario, the drug slipped into that sweet-colored drink. Or as SAMSHA administrator Peter Delany told CBS News: “These are people that are being given drugs that they don’t know about.”
The report is the first such survey of intentional poisoning related emergency room visits from the Rockville, Maryland based agency. But unpublished data from the previous year, 2008, clocked only 7,609 such emergency room visits. The sharp increase suggests radically improved reporting measures, a rather alarming upward trend in criminal behavior, or most probably, a combination of these and other factors. A few more years of such reports are likely to give us a more accurate – and possibly even more depressing - picture of the problem.
But if you don’t hear the siren-loud “beware” message already blaring from the SAMSHA report then you weren’t really listening. Setting aside the body count for a minute, by some accounts, GHB and other such “club drugs” are linked to some 3 million rapes over the last few decades. And this isn’t just about fun-and-sun spring breaks. In September, I gave a talk at the University of Oklahoma. Even at that middle of the country campus, on a cloudy fall day, students were talking about the use of the sedative Lorazepam as a date-rate drug.
The beware message is all about level-headed common sense. Don’t take drinks from strangers. Don’t leave your drink unwatched on a table. Don’t be a target. Easy to say, I know, from the tidy safety of a government agency office. Hard to remember in the buzz of a really good party, the blur of yet another round of drinks all the colors of confetti.
But try, okay? Think of the warning message as simply as this: come home safe tonight.