The terms “K.O. drops” (“K.O. Tropfen” in German), “knockout drugs”, “roofies” or “date rape drugs” most often refer to GBH, also known as "liquid ecstasy" in the party scene. However there are also other, similar substances that are discreetly slipped into the drinks of unsuspecting women and men with the aim of making them unable to defend themselves. What exactly are knockout drops, and how do they work?

Date rape drugs / K.O. drops are substances that cause the victim to lose consciousness and become helpless or incapacitated. The terms may refer to a number of active agents that are used as anaesthetics or sedatives in medicine. Some of these drugs are liquid, but they can also come as powders or pills. Criminals use these drugs to incapacitate their victims during sexual assault or robbery.

Substances used as date rape drugs include:

GHB and GBL

Gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB) or gamma-butyrolactone (GBL, precursor of GHB) – known as "liquid ecstasy," "liquid E" or "liquid X" in the party scene. GHB was developed as an anaesthetic, but is now seldom used in medicine. Chemically it isn't related to amphetamines or ecstasy (MDMA) and doesn't have the same effects. GBL is a predecessor to GHB that is converted to GHB in the body.

Ketamin

Ketamine is used as an anaesthetic in veterinary medicine and as a painkiller in human emergency medicine.

Benzos, flunis, roofies

These names designate prescription sedatives and psychotropic drugs stemming from the benzodiazepines group such as flunitrazepam (trade name Rohypnol), Alprazolam (trade name Xanax), diazepam (trade name Valium).

There are slight differences regarding when the substances act and for how long. What all substances have in common, however, is that they restrict movement and action and can lead to deep, coma-like sleep and unconsciousness.

The effects of date rape drugs vary depending on the victims' physical condition, health, dosage, how much food is in the stomach and possible combination with medication, alcohol or party drugs. Depending on dosage, the effects range from relaxation and sexual disinhibition to deep, potentially life-threatening unconsciousness.

Initial symptoms: dizziness and nausea

The drugs start taking effect approximately 10 to 20 minutes after ingestion. Sudden nausea and dizziness usually set in immediately after taking the drops. Often the victims assume that this is caused by alcohol, even if they haven't actually drunk that much.

At first the drugs can have a euphoric and disinhibiting effect. Victims report initially having flirted wildly or talked a mile-a-minute. They can still talk and move relatively normally for a while. From outside nothing about the victim's behaviour seems very unusual; at most, they might seem drunk or apathetic.

Victims become passive and easy to manipulate

Under the influence of these drugs, women and girls become totally passive and can be manipulated easily even before losing consciousness. Retroactively (after coming to) they can no longer remember this state of consciousness.

This explains why criminals can use date rape drugs in public so easily: they have enough time to talk to the victim or offer help, and then lead her away to a secluded place or outside location where they are easy prey.

Full effect: sudden tiredness

At a sufficiently high dosage, sudden tiredness sets in. The victims fall into a deep
sleep or lose consciousness, and only come to hours later.

The effect is amplified if combined with alcohol; the consequences can be very
dangerous: the victim may not only lose consciousness, but also stop breathing.

Blackout

When they come to they often feel extremely hungover, feeble and completely disoriented and dazed. Recollection of prior events is almost always vague or fragmentary at best. Many victims experience partial or total blackout.

This is what professionals call anterograde amnesia: the drugs prevent new memories from being formed after the event that caused the amnesia, leading to partial or complete inability to recall the recent past. This is why many victims cannot, for example, remember how they got back home.

Many feel that something has happened, they discover injuries and pain that they
cannot explain. The uncertainty about what exactly happened as well as their memory gaps weighs heavily on many.

Colourless, odourless liquid drops

Most often GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyrate) comes in liquid and colourless form. Their slightly salty and soapy taste is often masked by the taste of the drinks into which they are mixed. Other substances used as date rape drugs come as powders or capsules, which also dissolve in beverages.

Invisible to the unsuspecting eye

These substances can practically not be detected by taste, which is why it's relatively easy to slip them into open bottles or glasses at bars, clubs and parties. They may also be mixed in with food.

Watch your drinks

The perpetrators are not always strangers; friends or casual acquaintances can also be offenders. Perpetrators may act in groups: one of them diverts attention while another slips the drops into the drink. It is sometimes not even necessary to find a way to deflect attention if the drink is left unattended.

What's so tricky and dangerous about these drugs is that since the substances are colourless and essentially odourless, unsuspecting people are often unable to smell or taste the foreign substances when mixed in with a drink or meal.

Legality

In Germany, GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyrate) is restricted under the Narcotics Act (Betäubungsmittelgesetz) since 2002. This means the possession, purchase, sale, dispensing and administration of GHB is a crime. Even prescription psychotropics such as benzodiazepines are restricted by the Narcotics Act in Germany.

This does not mean, however, that it's impossible or even that difficult for offenders to get their hands on these drugs. GBL, a precursor of GHB is even available legally in Germany.

Under German law, the sexual abuse of persons incapable of resistance is a crime. If convicted, the perpetrators can be sentenced to ten years in prison under section 179 of the Criminal Code. Administrating these substances to unsuspecting individuals is a crime even.

Official statistics

The estimated number of unreported crimes is high – there are many reasons why the exact number of rapes and other crimes committed under date rape drugs is unknown:

  • Date rape drugs can only be detected in the body for a limited amount of time – during which however victims are often still incapacitated. It is often only weeks or months later that they realise what happened to them. Most suffer from a total blackout (retrograde amnesia), i.e. they cannot recall what happened immediately before losing consciousness.
  • Feelings of shame combined with fragmentary or absent memory often
    prevents victims from directly contacting the police.
  • A lack of sympathy and knowledge not only on the part of the police, but also doctors and hospitals. Police and emergency services often fail to take seriously people suffering from memory gaps reporting bizarre incidents. Victims might then often be written off or blamed for having consumed too much alcohol or too many party drugs.
  • Given that forensic verification of the drugs is already difficult to begin with and practically impossible after a short while, victims often cannot provide any proof of their suspicion. In the absence of solid evidence of the substances, the victim's credibility is often questioned or doubted, even if a perpetrator can be identified.

More and more victims seek help.

Women's helplines and counselling centres are reporting an increase in this type of
crime, as more and more women and girls who were raped or abused under date rape drugs seek their support and services.

Only in a fraction of cases do the victims contact the police, and in even fewer cases is it possible to trace the substances through forensic analysis. The rate of convictions is unknown.

Education and information:

Things must change – it is essential to raise awareness and to educate both potential victims and those who provide support.

Police, hospitals, emergency doctors and paramedics need to have a better understanding of the problem in order to be able to better respond to the emergencies and exceptional circumstances of women who were drugged and raped. It is also essential that women and girls know about the dangers of date rape drugs so that they can protect themselves and know what to do and who to contact if worse comes to worst.

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