Burlington, VT – Spending the night out in social settings is a popular activity in downtown Burlington, especially during the summertime, but some women are discovering a potential danger. Drink spiking is not a new phenomenon, but recently we’ve received several reports from people who believe their drinks were spiked with drugs. There are reports from people who say it happened at some Burlington bars this past Saturday night.       

According to the Office on Women’s Health, date rape drugs can be put into someone’s drink without their knowledge, and the drugged individuals may become confused, less able to defend themselves against sexual advances, and may not be able to remember what happened afterward. Three common date rape drugs that are put into alcoholic beverages include GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyric acid), Rohypnol, and Ketamine. The OWH states that around 11 million women in the United States have been sexually assaulted while drunk, high or drugged.

Statistics from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Networkindicate that as of 1998, 17.7 million women and 2.78 million men in the U.S. are victims of attempted or completed rape.

Several individuals have come forth saying they suspect they were drugged this past weekend. We talked with a support person who tells us the story of one such victim this past weekend.  We’re told the female victim was out with a friend in Burlington Saturday night and visited three nightspots. According to the support person, the victim went to use the bathroom at a bar and didn’t return.  We’re told a friend found the victim about an hour later slumped in the bathroom, covered with bruises and she no longer had underwear on. The victim came to on Sunday afternoon. We’re told she doesn’t remember anything that happened after they got to the third venue but believes she was molested or sexually assaulted due to the bruising and how her body felt. The support person recommended that the victim get checked out by a physician. As of publishing, it’s not known if the victim will pursue any action and as a result we are not naming the establishment allegedly involved which did not comment.

Another victim shared her experience from a couple of years ago when she was at a popular night venue on Church Street.  She says “I had just bought a drink, put it down right by where I was dancing, and when I went to take a drink, it wasn’t there.” She then returned to the bar to get another drink. “I was drinking a Kir Royale, which is champagne mixed with sugar and blackberry brandy or Chambord. The bartender turned around with my glass to reach for the Chambord and told me they were low. I had been watching him, and distinctly saw him mix something clear into the bottle.”

At this point, the victim told the bartender she didn’t want something he watered down, so he got another brandy instead, one that she did not recognize. “I took the drink, went back to dancing, and hadn’t even had 3 sips and all of a sudden felt weak, dizzy, and extremely drunk. The other two drinks I had were over four hours so there was no way I was intoxicated to the point of being blackout drunk. I was sitting next to a friend of mine and I looked at him and told him that something wasn’t right. He looked concerned and asked if I needed some water, to which I said no and excused myself to the bathroom, which was 10 feet away. Within the span of about four minutes, I went from totally OK, to barely being able to walk. I managed to get into the bathroom and I just stayed there with my face up against the wall, trying to get out. Eventually, the bar girl came in and she and my friend got me out of there. My friend drove me home and put me in bed, but I felt really dizzy and nauseous.”

While these victims have come forth and shared their stories, RAINN states that only 310 out of every 1,000 sexual assault cases are reported to law enforcement so the majority go unreported. We have also received reports from individuals who suspected their beverages were spiked but made it home safely that night. 

Detective Rich Weinisch of the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations said a trend in drink spiking cases would be “new information” to him. “I couldn’t speak to an uptick, however, I’m not implying that it doesn’t happen,” said Detective Weinisch. “If there is, it has not made its way to us as the cases that make it here are very far and few between. We thoroughly investigate all reports, but it is not unheard of that we investigate a case where a person may claim they feel differently than when they usually drink, and it turns out that they just had an insanely high level of blood alcohol. That does not, however, make them any less of a victim of sexual assault.”

“I don’t know if we necessarily see a rise in those types of cases reported to the police,” said Tim Bilodeau, Chief of the University of Vermont Police Services. “We will take any report at face value and we not only look at what is being reported to us but try and look at trends or other things that could lead to potential harm. Our department has partnered with various organizations to help create more access to drug testing and to connect people to whatever services that they need.”

It may be difficult to catch suspects spiking drinks in the act, but many local venues say they have policies and protocols in place to try and protect their customers.

One representative from Ruben James Bar & Grill says this is a very important topic for bars and bartenders to be discussing right now and that their employees practice hand-to-hand serving as much as possible. This means each drink is handed straight to the customer once it is poured or held onto until the customer is ready, and requires each person to grab their drink (in a circumstance where a person may be buying a round). “This allows us to see how everyone is doing and reduces opportunities for drink spiking. Of course this is not a perfect science so we are open to adopting additional procedures that are successful for our fellow bars. We would also like to note that drinking spiking is a very rare occurrence for us at RJs but we are vigilant regardless.”

An employee at Manhattan Pizza & Pub said that occasionally, they have customers who claim they suspect their drinks have been tampered with.  The employee says staff does their best to keep an eye on patrons and drinks and communicate with one another if anyone looks suspicious. If anyone appears to be doing anything suspicious, they are promptly ejected and banned, and law enforcement is contacted. Once someone is banned from an establishment, it is communicated to nearby venues, who subsequently also ban the suspect.

Other venues such as The Archives and Drink stated that they will look through their video surveillance footage and offer to contact the police. The representative from Drink says they will copy the video footage onto a flash drive and give it to the police to review.

The speakeasy venue Lincolns has drug testing kits on-site that are available to everyone and even those drinking at other venues can stop in and ask for a kit. The employee at Lincolns said he’s heard of drink spiking more over the last couple of years and that he keeps an ear out about what is happening at other locations, so that he can warn customers and give recommendations to those asking where else they should go.

One employee at Three Needs shared that he had also heard of drink spiking more over the last couple of years. “The best thing to do is to isolate the person and assess them.” He emphasized that while a person can come forth and just be really drunk, one can tell if drugs are involved. “There are things you will see like the person won’t be able to stand straight and they will lose consciousness.”

A bartender at Three Needs shared a firsthand experience he had working at a venue in South Burlington. “There was one case where a woman appeared to be drugged and a young man was trying to take advantage of the situation. We isolated her and she had to be taken to the hospital by emergency transport. Law enforcement was involved but there was no solid proof the man had done anything, but we ID’d him and he was banned.”

Below are some tips provided by bar staff and support people to reduce the risk of having your drink tampered with:

  • Never leave your drink unattended. If your drink is out of sight regardless of how little time has passed, do not consume it.
  • Keep your hands on your glass as much as possible and if you have to use the bathroom, hand your drink to a friend to keep an eye on it.
  • Cover your drink. Some companies have developed caps or covers for cups and glasses, but you can always use a coaster or even a napkin to cover the top of your glass.
  • Do not go out by yourself as friends can look out for each other.

Anyone who believes they have been drugged is advised to make a report to the police and to seek medical attention immediately. GHB can be detected in your blood for up to 72 hours after being consumed, and Rohypnol can remain in your system for three to five days.

We reached out to Burlington Police Department on multiple occasions to see if it had received any specific complaints related to drink spiking. We have not received a response.

HOPE Works Vermont offers free, confidential support for survivors of sexual assault.

RAINN provides a National Sexual Assault Hotline with confidential 24/7 support in addition to providing other resources for survivors.