Montreal women confused, devastated because they were denied test after drug suspicions

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 the Pointe-Saint-Charles neighborhood of Montreal. She says that the last memory of her was receiving the third drink from her. After that, everything went black.

She is grateful her friends got her home safely, but says she was distraught when she woke up and remembered 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 retaliation for speaking in public. She is one of two women going public with what happened to them, hoping it will lead to systemic change.

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

Testing for gamma hydroxybutyrate, or GHB, a drug commonly used in alcoholic beverages, can be a race against time.

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

After leaving the ER, she went to an urgent care clinic but was told she had to make an appointment and the earliest available was at least a week later.

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

Despite arriving within the 12-hour window required to be tested for GHB at the CLSC Métro, Lea says she was told she was ineligible to undergo a drug screening 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 evidence. And there was no way the perpetrator, whoever committed this crime, was going to get caught.”

On Monday, he filed a complaint with the Montreal police.

Not all hospitals can test

In a statement, the Quebec Ministry of Health said GHB testing is challenging because of the narrow window and also because only specialized laboratories can process the tests.

Currently, not all hospitals can provide testing. Earlier this month, the Quebec National Assembly passed a motion to make testing available in all hospitals.

The Health Ministry said anyone who thinks they have ingested a spiked drink should be able to go to an emergency room and get tested. The statement says the government is working on a plan to ensure widespread testing is available.

Neither the ministry nor the regional health authority responsible for CLSC Métro could explain why Lea was told she was ineligible for a drug test because she was not sexually assaulted.

A ministry spokesman would not say whether current official protocol dictates that a victim must have been sexually assaulted before being given a toxicology screen.

Provincial sexual assault intervention guidance mentions drug testing, but only in the context of sexual assault. It does not include a protocol for testing victims for possible drugs if they have not been sexually assaulted.

“It’s in the victim’s best interest to have access to this evidence if they want it, and it shouldn’t be a luxury to have it,” said Marie-Christine Villeneuve, spokeswoman for the Crime Victim Assistance Centers.

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

There is no testing capacity in the hospital

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

At the end of May, the 31-year-old musician Ariane Brunet went to a concert with close friends. She describes having a beer, then a drink, with friends. She can’t remember what happened after that.

She says that her friends noticed that she was behaving strangely. At one point, her friends told her that she couldn’t get up from the ground.

Medium shot of a young woman standing outside.
Ariane Brunet, 31, said that after passing out after consuming two drinks, she was taken to Montreal’s Verdun Hospital but told there was no evidence available there to confirm she had been drugged. (Dave St-Amant/CBC)

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

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

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

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

Brunet shared her story on social media, sparking a public debate that led to the National Assembly adopting a motion to give all Quebec hospitals testing capacity.

GHB in circulation

How frequent is the consumption of alcoholic beverages in Quebec? It’s hard to measure, but there are some signs that the practice may be on the rise.

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

The Health Ministry said it is working on a plan to make GHB tests available in all Quebec hospitals. (Oleksandra Naumenko/Shutterstock)

In April, Montreal police seized 100 liters of GHB and arrested four people in connection with raids on clandestine laboratories. At the same time, the Longueuil police seized 375 liters of GHB, which according to the police represented some 75,000 doses.

GHB is a drug that can cause extreme sleepiness, movement and speech problems, as well as fainting and memory lapses.

Beverages can be spiked with several different drugs: GHB, MDMA, and ketamine among them. Experts also say that alcohol remains the most widely used substance in drug-facilitated sexual assaults and that the phenomenon of heavy drinking is largely underreported.

Giving someone a drug without their consent is a crime, classified in the Penal Code as administering a noxious substance.

Lea wrote to her MNA, Greg Kelley, saying her experience “reveals a major public health and safety concern,” calling for toxicology tests to be made widely available.

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

“I just want to see how I can help,” he told CBC News. “Your experience of him is heartbreaking in many ways.”

Since last April in Quebec, only 18 people have been charged with administering a noxious substance since 2010. However, a spokesman for the province’s public prosecutor’s office said that sometimes the Crown decides to charge people accused of intoxication with other crimes, such as assault.

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

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