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Another View: Cosby trials put spotlight on drugs and sexual assault

June 10. 2018 6:33PM

BILL COSBY’S trials have returned attention to a once-prominent criminal justice problem: Drug Facilitated Sexual Assault (DFSA.)

It was severe enough to prompt numerous federally-funded studies and to be criminalized in three federal laws. A 2007 study found that 3 million American women had been DFSA victims, and 40,000 in 2006 alone. Incredibly, despite epidemic-levels of occurrence, the laws criminalizing DFSA have resulted in almost no convictions.

In the last decade, federally-funded DFSA studies have all but vanished. Equipment to collect DFSA evidence has never been standardized. Labs that process collected evidence often lack machines sensitive enough to detect it. As a result, nobody knows how common DFSA is in the United States. Did it suddenly stop? Or are we ignorant of a widespread crime that leaves victims with the physical and psychological damage of rape and without the means to prove, or even to know exactly, what happened to them?

This two-part article will attempt to answer those questions. The first will introduce DFSA, its likely frequency, and the ineffectiveness of the solutions we’ve devised for it. The second will propose ways we can address it.

Cosby allegedly surreptitiously administered Quaaludes, a powerful sedative, to his victims for the purposes of sexual assault. After a 1984 law made Quaaludes a Schedule I controlled substance, they were illegally produced and distributed in the U.S. Other drugs such as Rohypnol and GHB followed the same course, and have joined Quaaludes as DFSA agents sold on the black market.

How often are drugs like these used for sexual assault? The terrifying truth is that nobody knows. Even more so than sexual assault in general, DFSA is chronically underreported. Also called date rape, because victims are almost always familiar with their attacker prior to the assault, DFSA compounds some of the cruelest consequences of rape.

Its victims tend to more confused, embarrassed, and without proof of what happened to them. DFSA is inherently harder to prosecute due to the smaller window in which DFSA evidence can be collected, increased delays in victim reporting, and decreased occurrence of physical trauma. As a result, DFSA convictions are devastatingly low. We are stuck in a downward spiral of ignorance of the problem, inadequate equipment and procedures to identify it, minimal chances of conviction, and depressed rates of reporting, which combine to deepen ignorance of the problem.

A 2007 Department of Justice (DOJ)-funded study found that 15 percent of women raped in the United States were DFSA victims, and that 20 percent of women raped in 2006 were DFSA victims. Despite the alarming increase in DFSA incidence from 15 percent historically to 20 percent in 2006, DOJ-funded studies about DFSA have diminished in the decade since, and were half as many from 2010-2014 than 2000-2004.

Federal legislation reflects a similar trend. After a 1986 law made DFSA a federal offense, only two related laws have followed: in 1996 imposing a 20-year prison sentence for DFSA and criminalizing Rohypnol, and in 2000 elevating GHB to a Schedule 1 controlled substance. While other laws could be used to prosecute DFSA (Cosby was convicted under a state law) these are the most relevant federal statutes.

Convictions under them are few.

The Sexual Abuse Act of 1986: Nineteen convictions from 1994-2014

Drug-Induced Rape Prevention and Punishment Act of 1996: No convictions from 1996-2014

The Date-Rape Drug Prohibition Act of 2000: No convictions from 2000-2014

Why are the laws we passed to prevent DFSA so ineffective?

Thanks to years of neglect, like everything else about DFSA, we don’t know. But a major reason is likely how ineffectively we collect and process DFSA evidence.

In my next column, I will explain why, and offer some common-sense and achievable ways we can address DFSA to protect its victims from its devastating consequences.

Brendan Finn serves on the State Veterans Council and lives in Newfields.

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