Why were 2 Montreal women denied toxicology tests after alleged druggings?

On Friday, June 17, Lea woke up alone in her bed, disoriented and terrified.

The night before, she and two close friends had gone to a bar in Montreal’s Pointe-Saint-Charles neighbourhood. She says her last memory was receiving her third drink. After that, it all went black.

She’s thankful her friends got her home safely but says she was distressed when she awoke, remembering little from the night before.

“I was distraught. I was angry, and I wanted answers,” she said. 

Lea is not her real name. CBC News is protecting her identity because she fears reprisals for speaking publicly. She’s one of two women going public with what happened to them, in the hope that it leads to systemic change.

Lea, 27, is confident she was drugged. She went to a hospital emergency room but left, realizing the wait would be so long, any drugs might be flushed from her system by the time she saw a doctor.

Testing for gamma hydroxybutyrate, or GHB, a drug commonly used in drink-spiking, can be a race against time.

GHB can only be detected in the blood for six hours, and in urine for up to 12 hours, according to Quebec’s Health Ministry.

After leaving the emergency room, she went to an urgent care clinic but was told she would need to make an appointment, and the earliest one available was at least one week later. 

She called a friend familiar with Quebec’s health-care system who told her to go to CLSC Métro, one of the designated Quebec locations that offers medico-social interventions to victims of sexual assault. 

Despite arriving within the 12-hour window required to test for GHB, at the CLSC Métro, Lea says she was told she was not eligible to have a toxicology examination because she had not been sexually assaulted.

“I was devastated. I wanted an answer, just to validate my experience,” she said.

“I was really upset that I couldn’t have that piece of evidence. And there was no way that the perpetrator, whoever committed this crime, would ever get caught.”

On Monday, she filed a complaint with Montreal police.

Not all hospitals can do testing

In a statement, Quebec’s Health Ministry said testing for GHB is challenging because of the tight window and also because only specialized labs are able to process the tests. 

Currently, not all hospitals can provide testing. Earlier this month, Quebec’s National Assembly passed a motion calling for the tests to be offered in every hospital.

In a statement, the Health Ministry said that anyone who believes they have ingested a spiked drink should be able to go to an emergency room and be tested. It said that the government is working on a plan to ensure widespread testing becomes available.

But a spokesperson for the ministry wouldn’t say whether current official protocol dictates that a victim must have been sexually assaulted before they’re given a toxicology screening.

The provincial sexual assault intervention guide, shared with CBC News, does mention testing for drugs — but only in the context of sexual assault. It doesn’t include a protocol for testing victims for potential druggings if they have not been sexually assaulted.

“It is highly in the interest of the victim to have access to these tests if she wants to, and it should not be a luxury to have them,” said Marie-Christine Villeneuve, a spokesperson for the Crime Victims Assistance Centres.

“We can see that it’s a problem in some areas, in some places, and it shouldn’t be one.” 

No testing capacity at hospital

Lea is the second Montreal woman in a month to speak out publicly about having been denied access to a drug test.

In late May, 31-year-old musician Ariane Brunet went to a concert with close friends. She describes having one beer, then one shot, with friends. She can’t remember what happened after that.

She says her friends noticed she was behaving strangely. At one point, her friends told her, she was unable to get up off the ground.

Ariane Brunet, 31, said after passing out after consuming two drinks, she was taken to Montreal’s Verdun Hospital but was told no test to confirm she had been drugged was available there. (Dave St-Amant/CBC )

Her friend called an ambulance, which transported Brunet to Verdun Hospital. When she regained consciousness at 4:30 a.m., she requested a toxicology screening to determine whether she had been drugged.

She said the doctor told her that they didn’t offer the test and that no other medical institution in Montreal would, either. She’s still haunted by not knowing for sure what happened.

“What happened to me? I just needed some proof of what happened, just for me to recover,” said Brunet, who later filed a police report.

In a statement, the regional health authority that oversees the Verdun Hospital said that it was not able to comment on Brunet’s specific case, and it could not say why she wasn’t directed to another medical facility that offered the toxicology screening. 

Brunet shared her story on social media, which spurred a public discussion, leading to the National Assembly adopting the motion to give all Quebec hospitals testing capacity.

GHB in circulation

How prevalent is drink-spiking in Quebec? It’s hard to measure, but there are some indications that the practice may be on the rise.

In recent months, women in Trois-Rivières, Gatineau, Sherbrooke, Montreal and Rimouski have spoken in the media about experiences with spiked drinks.

The Health Ministry said it is working on a plan to make GHB testing available in every Quebec hospital. (Shutterstock/Oleksandra Naumenko)

In April, Montreal police seized 100 litres of GHB and arrested four people in connection with raids at clandestine laboratories. At the same time, Longueuil police seized 375 litres of GHB, which police said represented about 75,000 doses.

GHB is a drug that can cause extreme drowsiness, impaired movement and speech, in addition to blackouts and memory lapses.

Drinks can be spiked with several different drugs: GHB, MDMA and ketamine among them. Experts also say alcohol is still the most commonly used substance in drug-facilitated sexual assault and that the phenomenon of overserving alcohol is vastly underreported.

Giving anyone a drug without their consent is a crime, described in the Criminal Code as administering a noxious substance. 

Lea wrote to her MNA, Greg Kelley, saying that her experience “reveals a huge public health and safety issue,” and calling for the toxicology tests to be widely available.

Kelley spoke with Lea on Wednesday and said he plans to raise the issue with the regional health board and the ministers responsible.

“I just want to see how I can help,” he told CBC News. “Her experience is heartbreaking in a lot of senses.”

As of last April in Quebec, only 18 people have been charged with administering a noxious substance since 2010. However, a spokesperson for the province’s prosecution service said sometimes the Crown will choose to charge people accused of drink-spiking with other crimes, such as assault.

In a statement, the Montreal police encourage all victims to come forward, even if they don’t have definitive proof that they were drugged or know who was responsible. 

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