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A survey by Daemen College nursing students about date-rape drugs discovered that while many young people in Erie County were aware of the phenomenon, few took precautions to prevent someone from slipping them a drug in their drink at a bar.
While the study was an informal one, with a sampling of just 100 young men and women in Erie County, the students found that two- thirds of respondents had left a drink out of their sight.
And 12 percent of those who responded said they had an experience once in which they believed they had been drugged without their consent.
But 71 percent were savvy enough to make sure that when they headed out to bars, coffee houses and parties, they brought along a buddy who would look out for them.
To Mary Hanley and Kelly Mann, two of the nurses who conducted the study, the results showed that young people across the county need to be better educated about drug-facilitated sex assaults, particularly those who aren't in college and don't have as much access to health and safety information.
The nurses, along with their project partner, Doug Brenkus, acknowledged that their study was unscientific and would need to include many more participants to get an accurate picture.
But Hanley and Mann -- both emergency room nurses at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital who are trained to treat patients who were sexually assaulted -- say they have seen their share of patients who appeared to have been drugged before they were raped.
Hanley recalled that she had three suspected cases in a month.
One patient said all she could remember was having a drink in a bar, and the next morning she found herself in the apartment of a man she didn't recognize. The second woman said she woke up inexplicably in a hotel room downtown. A third had come to the hospital after she discovered her bra was missing as she was getting undressed after having gone out.
"I just want them to be aware that this is happening," Hanley said.
The nurses point out that few studies have been done about the topic and that it's hard to determine how prevalent the crime is, particularly because the victims often have a fuzzy memory of the assault and often blame themselves for getting into the situations.
But Erie County law enforcement has been taking new steps to combat drug-facilitated sexual assaults. Since January 2004, the county has become one of the few in the state that analyzes blood and urine samples taken during standard rape exams in the emergency room.
Robert J. Osiewicz, chief county toxicologist, said his lab, which is part of the county medical examiner's office, tested 44 samples of suspected date-rape drug use in 2004. So far this year, the lab has analyzed 47 cases.
Osiewicz said he and his team of six toxicologists have spotted opiates and other drugs, but "not necessarily drugs that have been identified in the media as 'date rape drugs' like Rohypnol and GHB." Before 2004, the tests were shipped out to a state-contracted lab, an often lengthy and cumbersome process. "Hopefully, we're giving as good a service and more timely," Osiewicz said.
Jeanine Schnell, the program coordinator of nurses like Hanley, has handed out dozens of sample collection cups to police officers and deputies across the county since the lab testing began.
"They weren't really thrilled about it," she recalled of the officers' initial response. "But they've been great."
Like Osiewicz, she hasn't seen the use of traditional date rape drugs in Erie County. Instead, she's seen cases where victims were drugged with a combination of alcohol and prescription drugs, such as anti-depressants and anti-seizure medication, or cold medicine.
"You mix that with a little bit of alcohol, and it's whole different thing," she said.
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