by Hilary Beaumont
“Super scary stuff—heads up Haligonians,” one of my Facebook contacts typed last week as she shared a story about a drug that went missing from the QEII hospital. She wasn’t the only one to react fearfully to the story. On Twitter and Facebook people posted about the 16 vials of Midazolam, a benzodiazepine used in surgeries, as if they were an immediate threat to public safety.
That the drug went missing is certainly worrisome but the anxious public response was largely due to an over-hyped news release written by Halifax police that told people to watch their drinks because Midazolam could be used as a “date rape drug.”
The release and HRP tweets prompted local headlines proclaiming a “date rape” drug had been stolen. Some reports, including those by the CBC and the Herald, did a good job of adding context, but CTV took the fear mongering further, interviewing a university student for their predictable response: “It’s definitely scary.”
It’s incumbent on police, press and communicators in between to publicize potentially dangerous situations. But sometimes the way we inform each other can do more harm than good. From the CTV story, I gather police wanted university students to watch their drinks—and given frosh week is fast approaching, that’s not a bad idea. But when that advice is over-dramatic, it should be called out.
Police are right to say Midazolam could be “dangerous if used inappropriately.” The release states, “It is water soluble, odourless, tasteless and colourless, and could be used as a drug to facilitate sexual assault (aka ‘date rape drug’).”
However, the release focuses on how Midazolam could be used and neglects to mention how it is used. Here’s more information about this particular drug that wasn’t in the release: Like other benzos, Midazolam has a calming, anxiety-relieving effect. It can cause drowsiness, memory loss and breathing problems. It is used in surgeries, and executions of US prisoners. It is prescribed as a sleep aid. It’s used recreationally, and there are forums full of advice on taking Midazolam to get high.
Jumping from missing drugs to rape is quite the leap. The drugs are assumed stolen, according to the release. No burglar has been caught. There is no evidence that if the vials were indeed stolen the thief plans to commit sexual assault. Someone could have stolen the vials for personal use, or for resale.
I could understand the worry about Midazolam if there were a recent case of benzo-facilitated sexual assault locally, so I asked HRP via Twitter whether any such crime had happened. The answer was no.
I asked if there were other recent sexual assaults elsewhere involving benzos or Midazolam, but they didn’t respond. I searched for rapes facilitated by Midazolam, but only found one publicized case of it being used for that purpose. It happened in London, England in 1999. There could still be unreported rapes involving the drug. Sexual assault is a vastly underreported crime. However, Midazolam rape is rare and hasn’t been reported locally. That wasn’t in the press release.
This isn’t the first time so-called “date rape” drugs have made headlines in Halifax. Whenever ketamine is seized by the Canada Border Services Agency, you can bet it will be referred to as “the date-rape drug,” though it is also a recreational hallucinogen. (Not that it can’t be used to facilitate rape; I wrote about one such case here.)
No drug is purely used for “date rape”. Almost any drug used that way is also used for partying, relaxing, therapy, medicine or as currency at Evolve. There are many more popular drugs than Midazolam that facilitate sexual assault: GHB, MDMA, marijuana, cocaine and don’t forget alcohol.
It’s risky to mislead people about drugs and rape. I’m sure the goal was to increase awareness of drug-facilitated sexual assault, but trust me, those most vulnerable to rape are already fearful of it. The cost of PR like this could be loss of trust in law enforcement, or poor decisions made on bad information. It comes across as crying wolf.
That said, I have to praise HRP for their changing attitude toward sexual assault. A few years ago a common refrain from the police department was that women could avoid sexual assault by changing their behaviour—putting the onus on us rather than on rapists. Two years ago HRP released a “don’t be that guy” poster campaign, and the Midazolam release states: “Drug-facilitated sexual assaults are a crime. Even if you drank alcohol or willingly took drugs, you are not at fault for being assaulted. You cannot ‘ask for it’ or cause it to happen.”
These are promising changes. However, HRP’s anti-rape strategy isn’t perfect yet. I hope they continue to refine it.