The Buzz: Dangerous Sips That Shatter Myths

By on March 28, 2018

Date rape drugs come in more than one form and Jackson Hole isn’t immune to them

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Danny Blacker is one of two women bartenders at the Million Dollar Cowboy. She’s worked there for seven years, but recalls one night last summer, when a woman came in with a male friend of hers. She already seemed “intoxicated.” A group of men “swooped in,” she said, and it became clear that the woman at the bar didn’t know these men, nor was she going to escape easily.

Blacker grabbed the friend the woman arrived with. She told him he needed to get her home, or Blacker would get the police involved. “I’d rather her go to jail than anything bad happening [with those men],” she said.

She didn’t have to call the cops. The woman got home safely. It’s not often Blacker can intervene in such moments, even though she’s always tuned in to them.

“As a woman bartender, you can’t help but be aware of kind of sketchy situations,” she said. The difficulty, Blacker said, is judging exactly how “sketchy” something is.

“If I see a girl getting really intoxicated but I don’t know her personally, I have no authority to say if the people she’s with are her friends or not.”

Of course, she does have some authority. TIPS (Training for Intervention ProcedureS) training teaches servers how do handle instances of intoxicated people, how and when to cut patrons off, how to slow them down.

What Blacker cannot prepare for are instances of date rape drugs—when someone slips drugs into a person’s drink. Which is what one woman alleges happened to her on the night of March 3.

The most recent case of the “date rape” drug entered the public sphere right as the police and sheriff’s departments were preparing for Hill Climb weekend. They issued safety tips advising women not to go out alone, not to accept drinks from strangers, not to leave their drinks unattended.

According to Jackson Chief of Police Todd Smith, law enforcement came across a woman “in a public place” who was unconscious and vomiting. Once she came to, she told police she thought she had been drugged. Sure enough, she tested positive for benzodiazepine. She did not report any sexual violence against her.

The problem with these cases, according to law enforcement, advocates and bartenders, is that yes, they do happen, perhaps more frequently than is convenient to admit. But they’re hard to recognize, and even harder to prove. Smith says such cases often go unreported because of the stigma that already surrounds sexual assault. There’s also “a lot of bad information out there” that dissuades people from coming forward. The window of time in which drugs can be detected is longer than people think, Smith said. Typically, it takes about three days for traces of drugs to leave your system.

“This myth that Jackson is a safe community isn’t helpful for anyone.”

From a bartender’s perspective, Blacker says it’s nearly impossible for her to tell whether someone has been drugged, or is just drunk. Different people react to drugs differently, she said, and the only thing she can be sure of is what she has served someone. But “just because I’m serving them [alcohol] doesn’t mean it’s the only thing in their system.”

Teton County Victim Services distributes coasters to local bars about once a year that serve as a litmus test for illicit substances. Just one drop of a drink onto the coaster will change the coaster’s color if indeed it has been tainted with anything besides alcohol. Blacker has never seen anyone use a coaster to her advantage. And she worries by the time someone suspects she has been drugged, it’s already too late. 

“It’s not like they’re going to grab a coaster and check if they’ve been roofied,” Blacker said. And even as a preemptive measure, in Blacker’s experience, “the more somebody gets drunk, the less they want to get told what to do.”

Community Safety Network Director of Education and Prevention Shannon Nichols wants to be careful how cases of date rape are characterized. “The level of danger does expand when you’re drugging somebody,” she said. And the knowledge of having been drugged adds “another level of dangerousness and trauma that sexual assault survivors experience.”

But such cases are also not what the majority of sexual violence looks like. Indeed, the most popular “date rape drug,” Nichols and Smith agree, is alcohol. It’s easy to vilify someone who would put a drug in someone else’s drink. But what about the person who intentionally gets a woman drunk, or preys upon an already-intoxicated person?

“This myth … that Jackson is a safe community isn’t helpful for anyone,” Nichols said. “It emboldens the offenders, and allows them to go unchecked.” Perhaps the important conversations, then, are the ones that de-normalize things like “getting her drunk on purpose.”

The space between encouraging proactive safety, and what advocates for victims of sexual violence call “victim blaming” is narrow. Conversations about women’s safety often put the onus primarily on women to keep themselves safe, rather than encouraging men to create safe spaces for women. The thing is, Nichols said, women can do absolutely everything right—watch their drinks, go out in numbers, keep their guards up. “That doesn’t mean that somebody won’t perpetrate against you.”

Which is to say, it is never the victim’s fault if somebody chooses to violate her. Still, Nichols said, it doesn’t hurt to take all necessary precautions.

The investigation into the latest incident is ongoing, and will be difficult to close with any certainty. The woman had been in a couple different bars throughout the night, and talked to a number of people. Video surveillance from the night offers some clues, but footage is “grainy,” it’s hard to identify anyone with certainty, even harder to know who among the many people filmed is the culprit. The culprit could have been a visitor. If police are able to identify the person and gather definitive evidence, they could be charged with delivery of a controlled substance, or battery, or any number of crimes. But it will be a hard case to prove.

From a law enforcement perspective, Smith encourages people to maintain “situational awareness.”

“It’s never the victim’s fault … I think most people should be able to go into a public place, enjoy themselves, and be free of someone victimizing them.”

But “in the world we live in, every time we let our guard down, someone could potentially take advantage of us,” he said. 

About Shannon Sollitt

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