Date-rape drug detecting nail polish sparks debate at UBC

In the study, 20.9 per cent of cases involved suspected drug-facilitated sexual assaults.
14 September, 2014
Photo Mackenzie Walker / The Ubyssey

Brush it on, reach into your drink, and swirl your fingers. Did it change colour?

That indicates the presence of a date-rape drug … or at least that’s the idea behind the new anti-date-rape nail polish that North Carolina State University (NCSU) students are developing.

The problem is that the product may not be able to do as it claims.

“Unfortunately, I have doubts,” said Glenn Sammis, an organic chemistry professor at UBC. “The possibilities for a false positive will be very high, especially considering the different types of juices, milk products, wines and liquors that are present in mixed drinks … GHB is even found naturally in many wines.”

Additionally, the complexity of each drug makes it unlikely a one-stop-shop detection is possible, said Sammis.

“There are other precursors to GHB that have very different structures and will unlikely be able to be detected by the nail polish,” said Sammis. “Even in the unlikely event that the nail polish is selective for GHB, it will not be able to detect anything else.”

Despite this, the NCSU students claim their product will detect GHB, Rohypnol and Xanax.

For many, the appeal of this product is easy to see. A 2009 study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) concluded that drug-facilitated sexual assault is a “common problem,” and that students are in the higher risk group. In the study, 20.9 per cent of cases involved suspected drug-facilitated sexual assaults. But it was overwhelmingly alcohol, marijuana and cocaine that were detected. And only one-fifth of those victims showed signs of drugs that they had not voluntarily consumed. This is difficult to measure, however, since the CMAJ’s studies look at victims up to 72 hours after the incident, while the presence of a drug like GHB is undetectable after 24 hours.

Ashley Bentley of UBC’s Sexual Assault Support Centre (SASC) has her own reservations about the product and its social implications.

“There’s already a lot of victim blaming that goes on within our society,” said Bentley. “[If] someone wears this nail polish and is still sexually assaulted, is that setting them up for more victim blaming?”

She commends the efforts of the creators, but feels that the product may contribute further to placing the onus on individuals to take responsibility for themselves, when it should be directed towards education. Despite this, she isn’t completely against it. “If it’s something that helps [people] feel empowered, then it’s absolutely fine … but sexual assault is an epidemic, and a nail polish isn’t going to solve that.”

The company developing the nail polish, Undercover Colors, is still in the development stages. Their latest Facebook update was August 28, and there is no predicted release date posted.

by David Nixon