“You broke out into a sweat and were nauseous, shivering and unresponsive.”
This is how friends might describe someone’s reaction to consuming a drink spiked with “knockout drops,” a kind of date-rape drug that incapacitates a person and renders them vulnerable to sexual assault or theft. The victim often has no recollection of the incident other than having been in a bar with chums and ordering a drink – then their memory goes blank.
“Sudden changes in someone’s behaviour – an abrupt, not gradual, mood shift, for instance – should raise a red flag,” says Dr Petra Zahn, head of the Central Casualty Department at Fulda Hospital in Germany, But she notes that knockout drops aren’t necessarily the cause.
“Alcohol is also a psychotropic substance, impacts the central nervous system and, in cases of alcohol poisoning, can produce similar symptoms.”
So how can you tell whether someone is simply heavily inebriated or has ingested knockout drops surreptitiously put into their drink?
“What stands out is that intoxication by knockout drops is faster and stronger,” explains Arwen Jaekel, 30, who works for the drug addiction prevention programme at the German Caritas Association. “KO drops act within a few minutes,” she says, and stresses the importance of keeping an eye on your drink – and getting your friends to keep an eye on theirs – to stay safe.
Kim Eisenmann, a 25-year-old German, has gone a step further. Spurred by an assault on a friend whose drink was spiked at a festival, she co-developed a wristband, now available in chemist’s shops, that can detect the psychotropic drug gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB). All you do is dab a couple of drops of your drink on the wristband, which will turn blue in two minutes if GHB is present.
Like other common date-rape drugs, GHB is colourless and tasteless.
While critics point out that other drugs, such as chloral hydrate, are also used to incapacitate people, Jaekel argues that simply wearing the wristband can deter potential perpetrators. She says she well understands that the topic of knockout drops raises fears in parents, but urges them to discuss it with their children.
“Making the topic taboo or strictly forbidding [children from going out and drinking] usually results in children remaining silent in the event of problems or an emergency,” Jaekel remarks.
Carola Klein, a counsellor at a rape crisis and counselling centre, also advises parents to address knockout drops with their kids. Questions she would ask an adolescent child, she says, include whether they have ever heard of crimes committed with the help of knockout drops, what they know or think about this, and whether it could happen to them.
If their child has apparently ingested knockout drops, parents should react calmly and not reproach the child, Jaekel says.
Klein agrees. “In our view, the perpetrator bears sole responsibility. Victims shouldn’t be blamed,” she says, adding that their blood or urine should be promptly tested for the presence of an incapacitating substance.
According to Dr Burkhard Madea, director of the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Bonn University Hospital in Germany, the duration of knockout drops’ detectability depends on the substance – usually it’s just a few hours.