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Invisible violations

The challenge of preventing and responding to drink spiking in Whistler

*[Editor's Note: The subject's name has been changed to protect her privacy.]

Amanda's* coworker had been pestering her for weeks to go out with him. She eventually relented, but was clear from the start she had no interest in being anything other than friends.

The night started out pretty well. The conversation came easy, and he even paid for a few rounds at a village pub. Amanda was enjoying herself.

But it wasn't long before things started to turn sideways.

"He bought me a couple of drinks and I'm guessing he drugged me at that time," Amanda recalls. "I blacked out hard. I have to drink an excessive amount to black out, and it was very rare in the past, so I was really surprised."

Amanda only remembers brief flashes from the night: the cold floor of a nightclub bathroom. Vomiting excessively. The kind woman who helped carry her out of the club and was reluctant to send her home alone with a guy in the state she was in.

The next morning, Amanda awoke in a fog, unsure of how she got home, her entire body aching. She looked over in disbelief at the man lying in her bed.

"Oh my god, did we have sex last night?" she remembers asking him. He feigned surprise, offended that Amanda couldn't remember when the sex was "so good." And when she went into work for her next shift, there he was.

More than a myth

Amanda's is just one disturbing story, but there are others. Pique heard from over a dozen people while investigating this feature, primarily women, who said they'd had their drinks spiked at one time or another in Whistler. Some multiple times. If there is a silver lining to such a dark cloud, it's that in the vast majority of these reports, someone intervened before an assault could take place. The incidents date as far back as 2009, to as recently as just a few weeks ago, and involve everyone from longtime locals to seasonals, clubgoers to servers.

Anecdotally at least, it's a phenomenon that seems troublingly common here.

"This is not a unique story to me," says Meaghan Mullaly, local radio DJ and musician who believes she was drugged at a busy Creekside bar on New Year's Eve. "It's happened before in Whistler and a couple of times before I even moved out here. The thing is it's more commonplace than people even think about. Most of the women I've spoken to here, it's happened to them as well."

Anecdotes, unfortunately, are all we have to go off of in Whistler, as neither the local police detachment nor Vancouver Coastal Health keep official records on drink spiking. RCMP Const. Steve LeClair recalls maybe five drink-spikings that were reported to police in 2016. In 20 years running bars and clubs across Canada — including five venues in Whistler — Joey Gibbons says he can count the number of drink spikings reported in his establishments on one hand.

It is, admittedly, a tough crime to get a handle on, for the same reasons it appeals to the offenders doing the drugging: it leaves gaps in victims' memories, often happens alongside the consumption of alcohol or other substances, and can be difficult to spot in a dark, crowded bar.

"We don't keep numbers on this, so we really have no way of knowing (how common it is)," says Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, medical health officer for the Sea to Sky and North Vancouver. "This is the problem with illicit drugs: they're all done in secret, we don't know what people are buying or selling, and it's very difficult to keep stats on this stuff.

"It's not always clear when it happens. Sometimes people think it happens and it actually hasn't, they just drank too much. It's definitely a problem that's out there, and it's unclear how big a problem it is."

Here's what we do know: one in four North American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. In the Sea to Sky, sexual assault rates are three times higher than in nearby urban centres such as Richmond and the North Shore. A 2009 report found that, of the 882 study participants presenting to sexual assault centres in Ontario, drugs and alcohol facilitated approximately a fifth of the assaults. Shannon Herdman, sexual assault prevention coordinator for the Howe Sound Women's Centre, believes that ratio is even higher in B.C.

"In talking to peers in the corridor and, generally, around the province, I understand drug-facilitated (assault) represents about 30 to 40 per cent of all sexual assaults in B.C.," she says.

Known unknowns

When it comes to drink spiking, it's clear there's a wide gap between what's being relayed to authorities and the reality on the ground.

"Generally, we know there's a great deal of underreporting because people just aren't sure of the resources that exist," says Whistler Community Services Society program manager Jackie Dickinson. "You wake up with a lot of questions, so how do you answer those questions?"

That sense of confusion, and the looming prospect of reliving her trauma in court, kept Amanda from reporting her alleged assault to police.

"I've always been someone to believe in the best of people and at that time I was definitely more naïve than I am now. So I kind of ignored it," she says.

"I put that period of time out of my head because I didn't know what to do with it. I wasn't going to report it. What was it going to do? Drag myself through a horrible legal battle that's 'he said, she said?' I still, at that point, hadn't accepted that he had drugged me."

It wasn't until later, three years after another sexual encounter with her coworker that she says became aggressive, that Amanda was able to come to terms with what happened. While tree planting on a farm one summer, she and a friend found a peephole in an outhouse used to spy on workers. The discovery left her shaken.

"I ended up reporting it to police, and that invasion of privacy triggered a whole bunch of stuff ... In the next couple of days, I started to unpack this previous drugging and rape from this guy in Whistler and it all sort of came out finally," she says. "It takes so long for someone to come to terms with things. Even with just basic small issues in their life, but something huge like that, it's really hard to accept. Your brain does really surprising things to put it away."

Another barrier is how few sexual assaults — the most underreported violent crime in Canada — actually lead to conviction: 99.7 per cent of perpetrators will never be held accountable for their crimes, according to a 2012 study.

Adding to the challenge of responding to an already elusive offence is Whistler's appeal as a vacation destination.

"The difficulty of Whistler is that (offenders) may come to the community, blend into the perfectly fun, friendly and safe population, these crimes occur and then they leave," says Herdman. "It may well be the victims of the crime are not from Whistler as well, and they have to ask themselves: do I want to be attached to this crime that occurred here?"

Recognizing the signs

The majority of drugs used to facilitate sexual assault, typically known as date rape drugs, are sedatives, but other common recreational drugs, such as MDMA, can also be used. The most common date rape drugs tend to be Rophynol, GHB, and Ketamine, although over-the-counter drugs like Gravol, or anti-depressant and anxiety medications can also be used to spike drinks, according to Women Against Violence Against Women, a Vancouver rape crisis centre.

Some of these substances are colourless, tasteless, and odourless, making them near impossible to detect. What's more is they often leave the system quickly, so drug tests aren't necessarily conclusive.

The effects can come on within minutes, and the danger increases when date rape drugs are mixed with alcohol.

"Basically people become drowsy, they become sleepy, and they may have trouble talking, slurring their speech. It becomes really concerning when they're having trouble staying awake, and particularly concerning when they're having trouble breathing," Lysyshyn says. "Some sedative drugs are also disinhibiting, and they allow you to do things you wouldn't otherwise." Victims also report experiencing blackouts, memory loss, and hallucinations.

While sedatives can often mimic the effects of alcohol, many of the individuals Pique spoke with say they noticed considerable differences in how their body reacted to a date rape drug.

"I was lucky I was with my friends, and they said we got back to the house and my head started to drop and my eyes were rolling. I couldn't speak, I couldn't stand, my muscles weren't working and they said I was basically a rag doll," wrote one Whistler resident in a message to Pique. "They got me into bed and my friends stayed awake for the night because I was in and out of sleep and my body was shaking. I had cold sweats but my body was burning."

While popular date rape drugs are believed to be the most common substances to facilitate sexual assault, that is not the case in B.C., Herdman says, and alcohol remains the No. 1 drug used for that purpose.

"At least in B.C., most drink spiking does not use the classic date rape drugs. We all are aware of Ketamine, GHB and Rophynol, but often it's just cold medication that's put into drinks," she says. "Or, a survivor asks for a one-ounce drink and gets a three-ounce drink.

"So pay attention if you're feeling weird. Don't play it off."

The psychology of drink spiking

While very little research has been done examining the motives of drink spikers, last year a team from the University of South Carolina spoke with 51 American university students who indicated they had either drugged someone or knew someone who had.

Published in the academic journal Psychology of Violence, the study found the two most commonly cited motives for spiking drinks were for fun and to have sex or sexually assault someone. Other motivations reported in the study included to calm someone down or make someone go to sleep. Researchers also spoke with victims, asking what they thought perpetrators' possible motives were, and the responses were broadly divided along gender lines. Women were much more likely to cite sexual assault as a motive, while men were more prone to indicate the culprit simply wanted to have fun. A closely related motive mentioned was to get people "to loosen up" or get them more drunk or high.

"Even if a person is drugging someone else simply 'for fun' with no intent of taking advantage of the drugged person, the drugger is still putting a drug in someone else's body without their consent — and this is coercive and controlling behaviour," said lead researcher Suzanne Swan in a release.

Herdman was quick to point out that perpetrators of sexual violence are often repeat offenders, and over time have become "good at their game," learning how to hone in on the most vulnerable targets. One common tactic used by druggers, for instance, is to spike several drinks at a time and wait to see who is most adversely affected before moving in.

"In some cases this may be somebody who has a medical condition," Herdman notes. "Perpetrators are playing Russian roulette, and it's extremely callous."

There is no typical victim of drink spiking. And while the targets of drug-facilitated sexual assault are overwhelmingly women, men are not immune. Former Whistler resident Ben Ruddy says he was drugged on his 22nd birthday at a village club.

"I probably had about one or two sips of it and went from pretty much completely sober to falling asleep on the couch," he says. "The only silver lining for me was I was drinking the same thing as my girlfriend, so they may have been trying to spike her, and I might've taken that bullet."

Prevention and response

Even though official reports of drink spiking in Whistler are relatively rare, it's not something the local bar and club community treats lightly.

"This is something I've always taken seriously," says Gibbons, whose company operates local venues Tapley's, the Longhorn, Garfinkel's, Buffalo Bills and The FireRock Lounge. "All of our staff and hosts are trained. We're always looking at everybody in the room. We've got a staff who are all trained professionally through our Serving it Right program, as well as by us, and work closely with police and liquor inspectors."

Cops are stationed in local clubs on a nightly basis, explains Gibbons, and his staff is taught to bus any drinks left unattended and to watch out for patrons in distress.

"If we see anyone who looks like they're in a situation that's uncomfortable and they're with somebody else, we always question that other person to make sure there's a relationship there."

It's also up to bar staff to ensure customers make it home safely if they've become overly intoxicated.

"Our team has full authority in getting those people into taxicabs, getting them to their hotel rooms, and that's something we take very seriously and do regularly," Gibbons adds.

Resort bar operators meet on a monthly basis through the municipality's Liquor Licence Advisory Committee, where they can address any pressing issues facing the local bar scene.

"This does not happen in any other town, where every competing club gets together with the liquor inspector, the municipality, Tourism Whistler, and everyone says, 'hey, what can we do to be the safest community possible for the patrons visiting us?'" Gibbons says. "As much as it's easy to point fingers at nightclubs, the group we have in Whistler focuses on safety at the highest level I've witnessed anywhere, and that's because of the collaboration we have here."

Over at Whistler Blackcomb, the largest employer of young people in town, sexual assault awareness is included in all bar-staff training and mandatory staff orientation sessions before the ski season. Employees are educated on party-safe practices, promoted in Staff Housing through posters, events and on social media.

"The safety of guests and staff is Whistler Blackcomb's No. 1 priority at all times," wrote VP of employee experience Joel Chevalier in an email.

As awareness of the dangers and prevalence of drink spiking has been on the rise, a number of innovative approaches to prevention have come to the fore. Last year, 21 bars, clubs, pubs and restaurants in Gloucester, U.K. made news after agreeing to take part in the #AskAngela campaign. The initiative encourages anyone who feels unsafe or finds themself in an uncomfortable position to simply "ask for Angela" at the bar. Employees will recognize the coded plea for help and ensure the patron is discretely removed from the situation.

Meanwhile, a handful of new technologies have been developed to help determine if a drink has been drugged. Advocacy group Good Night Out Vancouver has been working with Vancouver nightclubs over the past year to create safer environments free from sexual harassment, and recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to bring in special coasters that can detect the presence of GHB and Ketamine. In 2014, four North Carolina State University students unveiled a special nail polish designed to change colour if you dip your finger in a drink spiked with GHB, Rophynol or Xanax. Other startups have promoted date rape detectors built into drinking straws, glasses and lip gloss.

The tools have all garnered backlash from critics for putting the onus on women to prevent sexual assault and failing to address the root causes of the crime.

LeClair, the former operations NCO for Whistler and Pemberton police detachments, acknowledges that the bulk of the RCMP's messaging isn't directed at the perpetrators of violent crime.

"I guess my thoughts are we can assist potential victims in changing their behaviour, the offenders I'm not so sure of. We change their behaviour by enforcement and apprehension," he says. "The value is in helping potential victims protect themselves, so I don't think we victim-blame, but try and get the victims to be harder targets."

Given her findings in last year's study, University of South Carolina researcher Swan feels it imperative to reach those doing the drugging, and not just victims.

"Because many of those who drug others believe that the behavior is fun and minimize the risks, interventions could provide information about the dangers of overdosing," she says. "They could also target the issue of consent. Just as people have a fundamental right to consent to sexual activity, they also have the right to know and consent to the substances they ingest."

It's a message that's even more crucial to get out in a party town such as Whistler, where the stigma surrounding sexual assault persists.

"This is the first time I have come forward publically about any of this, whereas it is not the first occurrence," says Mullaly. "When it comes to sexual assault, victims — myself included — are often faced with persecution afterwards. Victimized again by the system and the people we disclose our stories to. Even friends. To be honest, in my experience, the aftermath I endured after opening up hurt more than the act itself."

Herdman says it's important to talk openly about sexual assault in clear terms and treat it for exactly what it is.

"Sexual assault, while it has this sex component, is really about having power over somebody else," she says. "Rape culture itself, which is sort of the dark side of bro culture, allows perpetrators to hide and move in and do their crimes much more easily than if there wasn't so much mythology around what sexual assault is. It's not about drinking too much and miscommunication so much as it is somebody who is taking advantage of an opportunity to exploit someone vulnerable.

"What I'm hoping for is that the Communities that Care model prevails in a place like Whistler, where, if you're coming here to visit, and you're the victim of crime, we'll rally around you and find you the help you need and make sure the path through justice and health care is as smooth as possible, without judgment. That will underscore why Whistler is a world-class community and destination because we take care of anyone who comes to our resort."

The resources available

For anyone who's experienced drink spiking or sexual assault, free, confidential outreach support is available Monday to Saturday through the Whistler Community Services Society, which can be accessed by calling 604-932-0113 or by dropping in at 1519 Spring Creek Drive during the week, or calling 604-902-0865 on Saturdays. "Sometimes when people don't know what transpired, we're there to listen and help put those pieces together," Dickinson says. Outreach workers can also help individuals file an anonymous police report. The RCMP offers services for victims of any crime as well.

Forensic sexual assault exams are now available during business hours at Squamish General Hospital. That service is available 24-7 at Vancouver General Hospital. Contrary to the popular perception, victims seeking a forensic exam are not barred from showering or changing clothes following a sexual assault. The exams can be completed within seven days of the incident, and hospitals will maintain test results for up to a year, giving people time to decide if they wish to go to police.

"Ultimately we want to reduce as many barriers for people to get service as we can, and we also want to try and get people as comfortable and safe as possible," Dickinson says.