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A decade after date-rape drugs first made headlines, clubgoers know not to leave glasses unattended or let strangers buy them a drink
By Bill Glauber
Tribune staff reporter
August 28, 2005
When it comes to staying safe in a bar, Alyssa Hurt follows her mother's advice.
Stick with friends. Don't take a drink from a stranger. And keep your eyes on your glass.
"My mom always told me to be careful when you're out," Hurt said as she sipped a Long Island iced tea and celebrated her 23rd birthday with friends at a Chicago bar recently.
Hurt is part of a generation of young female drinkers who have absorbed the methods of protecting themselves and their friends during a night on the town.
A decade after so-called date-rape drugs first made headlines and the threat of spiked drinks swept conversations in bars and clubs across the country, the ways of young women drinking in America have changed.
A whole generation has been taught to drink defensively, to watch their glasses like they would watch their purses.
From on-campus seminars to e-mails, the word has long gone out to women to be on guard while in a bar or club.
An industry has even grown up around the problem of drug-facilitated rape, with manufacturers bringing to market test cards, coasters and swizzle sticks to detect whether a drink has been spiked. Experts on the drugs remain skeptical about the accuracy of the cards and claim they may offer only a false sense of security.
As students head to college campuses, some for the first time, another generation on the cusp of legal drinking will be schooled in the strategies of how to have fun and stay safe.
A woman asking a friend to keep an eye on her drink, or even taking the drink to the restroom, has become part of an evening out. Like hiding car keys in her fist to use as a weapon and learning to walk like she owns a lonely street, keeping watch on a gin and tonic has been added to a grim but necessary routine.
In the mid to late 1990s, fear about date-rape drugs reached a fever pitch in America's clubland. But media attention and personal vigilance are credited with helping to blunt the once-terrifying trend.
"People have been conditioned to be safe in many different ways, from who you go out with at the beginning of the night to how you get home at the end of the night," said Chicago nightclub owner Billy Dec.
But that doesn't mean the threat has gone away. Date-rape drugs are still out there, still used to disorient the unsuspecting. The best-known of the drugs is gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB), sometimes known by the street names Liquid E, Liquid X or Woman's Viagra. Other drugs that have been used in sexual assault are Rohypnol and ketamine.
"It's still a big issue, and law enforcement and hospitals are way behind," said Trinka Porrata, a retired Los Angeles police officer who heads Project GHB, a group that tries to raise awareness about drugs.
In Las Vegas, use of date-rape drugs was reported in about 100 cases last year, according to Sgt. Blake Quakenbush, a narcotics officer.
"That's probably just scratching the surface," he said. "In Las Vegas, it's a big problem. An epidemic. You have to worry about it when going out to a nightclub here."
Since 1995, there have been 198 GHB-related fatalities, most in the U.S., according to findings from a GHB research project headed by Deborah Zvosec, a Minnesota-based researcher.
"Most of the cases are people who were using either GHB recreationally or they were people who were using dietary supplements with compounds related to GHB," Zvosec said.
Getting hard data on drug-facilitated rape is difficult in large part because the drug can be detected in a victim's system for only a short time.
No incidents involving date-rape drugs have been reported in the last six months to a year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, according to Ilene Harned, who coordinates the school's office on alcohol and other drugs.
"That doesn't say that things haven't happened," she said. "But it doesn't seem to be as big of an issue as it was back in the mid-1990s."
Dec, the Chicago club owner, agreed. He recalled that in the late 1990s, the date-rape drug scare was everywhere, from "the trendiest of nightclubs to the slummiest of sports bars. It knew no boundaries. It was weird. It could happen to anybody."
Far and away, though, experts say the most used date-rape drug of all remains the most obvious: alcohol. Too many drinks can impair judgment.
Yet over the years, drinkers have grown a lot savvier about taking care. And bar and club owners have taken notice.
"I think women in general tend to go out and be social in small groups, and they are often very territorial and protective of one another," said Matt Eisler, who owns Elm Street Liquors in Chicago.
Here's one big change on the bar scene: It's no longer acceptable for a stranger to bring a woman a drink. If you want to buy a drink, it's only done when a woman goes up to the bar, watches the drink poured and then takes it directly from the bartender.
During a recent evening out at Chicago's Funky Buddha Lounge, a fashionably grungy place with two bars and pounding house music, Alyssa Hurt, who was celebrating her birthday, and her friends, Melanie Jackson, 25, and Sarah Stinson, 21, stuck together and made sure to bring their drinks wherever they went, even the restroom.
And they wouldn't dream of letting a man buy their drinks.
"I feel empowered telling a guy that I buy my own drinks," Jackson said.
Jackson said that last year at another bar, a friend accepted a drink from a man and quickly became sick.
"I had to tell the guy to go home and I had to carry my friend to the car and put her into bed," Jackson said.
Women watching out for other women is now standard operating procedure.
Morgan Holland, 22, of Omaha, was out on the town with sisters Kristine Menas, 26, and Courtney Menas, 22, of Minneapolis.
They took care and guarded their drinks.
"I never set my drink down," Holland said.
The women not only watched their drinks, they made sure no suspicious characters were lurking around them.
"The thing with us is we're all loyal," Kristine Menas said. "We wouldn't let someone go home with some guy. We'd drag them out by their hair if we had to."
Even drinkers from another generation are adapting to the new rules of bar-going.
When she was in college, Kelly Klein, 41, of Naperville, said she routinely left drinks on the bar. The biggest fear then, she said, was that someone would take the drink--not spike it.
Defensive drinking was on display recently at Level, a bar-nightclub in the heart of Rush Street. One night recently, several bachelorette parties were in full swing, as women held their drinks and danced to the pounding, rhythmic music.
They had a good time. But they also remained on watch.
"I never accept a drink from a guy," Stacy Conn, 27, of Chicago said. "I never turn my back on a drink. And if I somehow forget the drink, well, I walk away from it."