Greater Boston bars and venues are grappling with a rise in involuntary drugged drinks, but procedures for addressing future incidents are in sight
“When you raise awareness, if you even help prevent one person from getting drugged, then that’s a good thing.”
Amidst a rash of incidents in which people have been involuntarily drugged in Greater Boston bars and clubs, the Cambridge License Commission (CLC) issued a one-day license suspension to the music venue the Sinclair on April 25 for “allegedly failing to provide aid to an intoxicated or injured person” last September. The CLC is responsible for issuing numerous licenses and permits and enforcing rules, regulations, local ordinances, and state laws.
While the short Cambridge suspension slated for Friday, June 9 made headlines, this issue isn’t new. Over the past year, reports of spiked drinks in the Boston area have increased. Bars and music venues are grappling with an issue they can’t quite explain; but as awareness increases, statewide solutions are being considered.
Earlier this year, state Sen. Paul Feeney of Foxborough filed a bill to establish testing protocols and care for victims of date-rape drugs. If enacted, the legislation would establish a Date Rape Drug Response and Intervention Task Force to study and recommend protocols for hospital care for victims. The bill would also introduce a testing standard for those who file reports as well as a trauma-based training program.
“Over the last year alone the Commonwealth has seen an alarming increase in reported incidents of spiked drinks at bars, nightclubs, concert venues, and even house parties,” Feeney wrote in an email comment for this article. “Yet when victims of this crime go to the hospital to get tested and confirm whether they have been drugged, far too many are reportedly turned away and refused testing unless the survivor is also reporting a sexual assault or rape as part of the drugging incident.”
The senator added, “This pervasive roadblock to testing and confirming cases of involuntary drink spiking means that survivors are left searching for answers, incidents of this crime remain unreported, and perpetrators continue to walk free.”
Feeney said he filed the legislation to create a uniform testing protocol and standard of care across Massachusetts hospitals so that “victims can get the answers they deserve without first playing hospital roulette in an attempt to find out what they were drugged with.”
The introduction of the bill comes after multiple reports and victims speaking out on social media. Last year, a Northeastern University student posted her own experience on TikTok that went viral. After she suspected she was drugged at a house party in October, Brinly Meelia went to Massachusetts General Hospital, where staff refused to test drugs in her system since she was not sexually assaulted or raped.
“There needs to be more done,” said Ilana Katz Katz, a Boston-based blues and Appalachian fiddler, singer-songwriter, and novelist.
On Sept. 30, 2022, Katz was attending a concert at the Sinclair with a close friend and alleged she was involuntarily drugged at the venue—an incident that led to the Sinclair’s one-day suspension several months later.
While on the upper level at the venue, Katz put her drink down in a corner a few feet away from her to dance and enjoy the music. She thought she could keep her eye on the drink.
“This guy came up to me … and he said, ‘Don’t forget about your drink,’” Katz said. “Thinking about it now, that of course should have been a [red flag].”
She only took about two or three small sips before she felt very drunk.
“I knew something was wrong,” she recalled. “I collapsed on the floor like a rag doll and had an out-of-body experience, seeing my body below me.”
At that point, Katz lost control of her muscles and was unable to walk on her own. Her friend and another attendee helped her to the bathroom, where she fell ill, throwing up and screaming for an hour.
Assisted out of the bathroom and toward the venue exit, Katz continued to scream, “I’ve been drugged!”
“I don’t take drugs, and don’t drink a lot, so it was a weird feeling and I knew I’d been drugged,” she said. “But I was aware enough to shout for help.”
Katz added that no staff members offered her medical attention or called the police, even though she said she’d been drugged.
After exiting the venue, her friend picked up Katz’s husband and they rushed her to the ER at Mass General. The hospital gave her anti-nausea medication and kept her for several hours, but they wouldn’t take her blood to test for drugs. As of now, hospitals in Massachusetts are not required, or do not have the protocols, to test for date-rape drugs—that is, unless a victim was sexually assaulted.
Katz’s husband convinced the hospital to take a urine sample, though, which was eventually tested by the Cambridge Police Department. Four months later, the drug test came back and tested positive for several drugs that Katz never voluntarily ingested, including Benzodiazepine and Temazepam.
Jeremy Warnick, CPD director of communications and media relations, said the toxicology report only tests for Gamma-hydroxybutyrate, or GHB—often referred to as a “party drug”—which was not detected in that case.
“While we have been made aware of possible drink spiking incidents in Cambridge, the last confirmed case of drink spiking at a Cambridge business occurred after it was initially reported in February 2022,” Warnick said. “It was confirmed in May 2022 after lab results were analyzed by the state.”
While Katz was being treated in the ER, her husband emailed the Sinclair to request security camera footage, but did not receive a response. He also called the police to file a report from the ER.
Two days later, when Katz finally got to a computer, she reached out to the venue on her own. Her goal was to work together with them to prevent it from happening to other people, and she even left an urgent voicemail at one point, but didn’t hear back.
“I just had all of these ideas on how things could be safer and how to work together,” Katz said. “Making venues safer and diminishing chances for further assaults has always been my goal and continues to be.”
After waiting for more than a week, she sent letters to the Bowery Presents concert promoter behind the show and AEG, a partial owner of the Sinclair, and finally heard from a manager at the Sinclair. The two spoke a few times, but Katz said the manager eventually stopped replying. The last she heard, the venue was working with a task force in Cambridge. A city spokesperson did not confirm that such a task force exists, but said there is an educational campaign that consists of CPD working directly with businesses.
Last November, Katz reported the September 2022 incident to the Cambridge License Commission. The body’s review of the allegations took about seven months.
Lee Gianetti, a city spokesperson, said the idea behind the suspensions is articulated in case law: “The purpose of discipline is not retribution, but the protection of the public.”
Gianetti said going forward, venues should conduct themselves and train staff to call the police and emergency services for any patron in distress, seeking assistance, or impaired.
“It is critical for venues to take all reasonable measures to ensure safe environments and listen to the patrons’ concerns,” Gianetti said.
As of this publication, the Sinclair has not responded to a request for comment on how the venue will move forward to ensure the safety of patrons.
“All of this makes me so sad,” Katz said. “I don’t even know what to say, but I’m glad that there are consequences for a venue not adhering to Massachusetts state laws.”
She added, “I do not hold the Sinclair responsible for me being drugged. However, if I’m a patron of an establishment and if I cannot walk on my own, and I am screaming that I have been drugged, and I’m in clear distress, and you don’t call the police, then they deserve to have a suspension.”
Crossroads Presents, a Boston-based concert promoter, said they are taking proactive measures to help safeguard beverages served in its venues. The promoter—which represents Paradise Rock Club, Brighton Music Hall, House of Blues Boston, Orpheum Theatre, Big Night Live, and Citizens Bank Opera House—said in a written statement that measures include “making drink lids available at all points of sale and posting signage throughout the venues to share safety tips with attendees. … We are grateful to BPD for educating the community on this issue.”
Katz said there was signage in the Sinclair’s bathroom on the night of the incident. She didn’t see it until she had already been drugged.
After her experience last year, Katz turned to trauma therapy to help calm her body and mind. She underwent three eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) sessions, which are designed to alleviate distress associated with traumatic memories, and said it helped her move forward.
Meanwhile, the Facebook group “Booze in Boston,” “a forum dedicated to sharing date-rape drug stories in and around Boston,” is less than a year old and already has more than 13,000 members. Katz has used the resource to connect with people who have had similar experiences, leading her to an opportunity to tell Sen. Feeney about the importance of protocols for date-rape drugs.
To boost support for Feeney’s bill, Katz helped kickstart the petition “Support victims of date-rape drugs in Massachusetts with proposed legislation Bill SD.2411.” The goal is to provide concrete protocols for hospital staff and law enforcement to better assist and help victims and staff, as well as define clear consequences for establishments that do not follow protocols. The initiative currently has more than 1,500 signatures on change.org.
“We should be examining every aspect of this and looking for solutions in addition to testing, such as state and local awareness campaigns, availability of drink testing kits, staff training at venues, law enforcement resources, and potential licensing requirements,” Feeney said.
In addition to the petition, Katz said they are also hoping to create public service announcements on TV programs, similar to those for COVID-19 vaccines.
“When you raise awareness, if you even help prevent one person from getting drugged, then that’s a good thing,” Katz said.
Warnick, the CPD director of communications, said that when a pattern of drink-spiking began to emerge in Boston last year, the City of Cambridge began to work with businesses on an ongoing education campaign. This included sending background information and flyers to establishments that serve and sell alcohol in the city.
“In the interim, we continue to closely monitor this issue and strongly encourage patrons to report anything suspicious,” Warnick said.
Similarly, the Boston Police Department released a number of community reports reminding “the public of the dangerousness of scentless, colorless, and tasteless drugs such as Rohypnol, also known as roofie, being placed in the drinks of unsuspecting victims.” The BPD also encouraged people to report incidents immediately. Boston police received 116 reports of drink spiking last year.
E, a source who requested anonymity, said she has been involuntarily drugged while at Boston venues on at least three separate occasions. She supports the introduction of a governmental task force, not a police task force, for more direct oversight on incidents.
E noted the importance of having a comfortable space for victims to report an incident, as well as receive any help they might need. That could be an actual resource center, or even a site online with concrete data on the number of reports at bars and venues across the city. E said with more awareness, the more comfortable people will be to talk about their experiences.
Katz agreed. “I am a very hopeful person, and I believe that every action we each take changes the narrative and makes it safer,” she said. “I am hopeful that the more this issue is brought to light, the more difficult it will be for perpetrators to commit this horrendous crime.”