By Elinor Smith
A bill introduced into the Montana House of Representatives Friday would criminalize the act of roofying someone, or causing them to unknowingly ingest date rape drugs, regardless of if the drugged victim is sexually assaulted or not.
House Bill 457 would classify the administration of the three most commonly used date-rape drugs -- rohypnol, flunitrazolam, or gamma19 hydroxybutyrate -- to an unknowing individual as misdemeanor assault. It would be punished with a $500 fine, six months in county jail or both.
Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, is the sponsor of HB 457. She says constituents of hers who attend MSU in Bozeman brought the issue to her attention and under current Montana law there’s no way to prosecute an individual who roofies someone if there is no assault.
“They may not end up with a sexual assault but there’s still, as you heard in testimony today, a violation of bodily autonomy. A violation of ourselves. Which is the most intimate thing I can imagine,” Buckley said.
Proponents of the bill included law enforcement, Montana attorneys, organizations focused on stopping domestic and sexual violence as well as representatives from universities across the state.
Katie Fire Thunder is a student in Bozeman. She shared a story of getting panicked phone calls from her sister and sister’s friends when they realized her sister had been drugged during a night out.
“That night was really scary for all of us. Seeing her sick and not awake or being herself, but also the thought of the unknown. What if she didn't have her friends looking out for her? What if the person who put something in her drink was able to get to her before her friends?” Fire Thunder said.
Jennifer Hensley represented the County of Missoula and opposed the bill, but only as it’s currently written. She told committee members she was in strong support of the bill as long as it included a crucial amendment that would include language eliminating loopholes for what type of drugs offenders might use.
“Other prescription medications are often used to alter the state of consciousness or consent of a victim. But because those three drugs were not one of the three, those people would be able to skate without the consequences of this legislation,” Hensley said.
There is no standard ‘roofie’ drug. It’s common for people to use a cocktail of drugs or substances not listed in the bill to subdue victims, and lawmakers wanted to be sure nobody could slip through the cracks of the bill and get away with drugging someone with something other than the drugs in the bill.
The committee also discussed finding ways to balance getting justice for victims while making sure the bill doesn’t unintentionally criminalize the medical use of some of these drugs in emergency medical situations where a patient might not be awake or able to consent to taking the drug. Others worried that making this offense a misdemeanor wasn’t enough and asked to make it a felony aggravated assault.
Representative Buckley said she’d be open to any clarifications or amendments to the bill to ensure roofying cases can be prosecuted. Unfortunately, since it is not currently illegal to roofie someone in Montana, cases are under-reported and data on just how many people are being roofied in Montana is hazy.
According to a 2022 article released by the Montana Kaimin, the University of Montana’s independent student-run newspaper, there were a reported ten people drugged between January 18 and February 21 of last year at UM alone.
Elinor Smith is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.