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He Used to Run a Nightclub. Now He’s Pushing for New Laws to Fight Drink Spiking.
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By CalMatters
Published 3 weeks ago on
July 2, 2024

Former nightclub owner turned Assemblymember Josh Lowenthal is leading the charge for new laws combating drink spiking in California bars. (Shutterstock)

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Across California, hundreds of bar owners have been hanging signs that read, “Don’t get roofied! Drink spiking drug test kits available here.”

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Ryan Sabalow

CalMatters

If they don’t post the signs — or if they don’t have kits available for patrons to test their drinks to determine if they’ve been drugged — the proprietors run the risk of state fines or having their liquor licenses suspended.

The new requirements for the state’s 2,400 bars and nightclubs take effect today, thanks to a law that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed last year. Its lead author is Long Beach Democratic Assemblymember Josh Lowenthal, a former nightclub owner who is currently a partner in three Southern California restaurants that serve alcohol.

Lowenthal’s Other Anti-Drink Spiking Legislation

And it’s not Lowenthal’s only anti-drink spiking legislation. He has three other anti-drink spiking bills pending in the Legislature that would add new requirements for alcohol servers. One would require bars to provide cups with lids on them at a customer’s request. Another would require the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to include mandatory training for alcohol servers to spot drink spiking.

A third bill is potentially the most controversial. It would require employees, if they believe a customer has been drugged from a spiked drink, to call police, follow the 911 dispatcher’s instructions and “monitor” the customer until law enforcement or an ambulance crew arrives.

Lowenthal told CalMatters last week that his legislation seeks to address a rise in drink-spiking that has “gotten to crisis proportions.”

“The bars need to be involved,” he said during a break from Thursday’s Assembly floor session. “Alcohol companies need to be involved. Patrons need to be involved looking out for each other. We need to be talking about it and creating this level of prevention. Because once somebody’s drink has already been spiked, it’s too late. So what can we do to prevent it from happening?”

The Challenge of Tracking Drink Spiking Incidents

Firm numbers about the prevalence of drink spiking are hard to come by, and research that’s available is based on surveys and anecdotes.

A survey published in 2016 in the American Psychological Association’s journal “Psychology of Violence” found that 8% of 6,064 students surveyed at three universities believed they’d been slipped drugs. Eighteen percent of more than 45,000 respondents in a 2022 global survey from a London-based research firm reported that they had been drugged. The same survey noted that 92% of the victims didn’t report their suspicions to police.

According to Lowenthal’s office, the Long Beach Police Department receives around 25 reports of drink spiking a year.

Assemblymember Josh Lowenthal, pictured here addressing the California Assembly last year, is behind several measures that aim to combat drink spiking. (AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

Lowenthal said the lack of data is due in part to the nature of the drugs. They cause severe short-term memory lapses, and the drugs typically fade from the human body after a few hours. It’s a combination that makes it difficult for a victim to remember what happened and that leaves behind no evidence for investigators to find, experts say.

“You can’t see them,” Lowenthal said. “You can’t taste them. You can’t smell them, and they leave the body within 24 hours, so you can’t even test that it’s in somebody’s system if they’d been roofied.”

(“Roofied” is a slang term used to describe someone who’s drink has been spiked with the most notorious date-rape drug, Rohypnol.)

Unanimous Support for Anti-Drink Spiking Measures

Last year’s bill requiring bars to post notices and provide drink-spiking test kits advanced to Newsom’s desk without a single lawmaker voting “no” and without any formal opposition, including from lobbyists representing bars and restaurants, according to the Digital Democracy database.

Lowenthal’s other three bills have advanced from the Assembly to the state Senate in the same fashion and without any opponents.

That includes the bill requiring employees to monitor someone suspected of being drugged until police or medics arrive. Lowenthal argues it’s important for the employees to keep an eye on a victim so they don’t leave with their would-be rapist who drugged them. His bill, however, wouldn’t penalize a bar employee or liquor license holder if a drugged person leaves before help arrives.

Democratic Assemblymember Mike Gipson told Lowenthal he was glad to see the measure earlier this spring when the bill was before the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee, which handles alcohol and gambling legislation.

Gipson, a former police officer from Gardena, told the committee his cousin had died after a drug-induced robbery. Gipson told CalMatters an autopsy found so much Rohypnol and alcohol in his cousin’s body that the coroner believed it had caused him to stop breathing.

Gibson said he supports “anything that we can do in this space to make it safe.” He added that bar patrons need to be on guard.

“If you have to leave a drink, take it with you to the bathroom,” Gipson said. “Never leave it unattended, even with people that you think you know and you think you can trust.”

About the Author

Ryan Sabalow is a Digital Democracy reporter for CalMatters. A graduate of Chico State University, he began his career covering local news for the Auburn Journal in Placer County and The Record Searchlight in Redding. He spent three years in the Midwest at The Indianapolis Star where he was an investigative reporter. Before joining CalMatters, he primarily covered California water and environmental policy at The Sacramento Bee. A lifelong hunter and outdoorsman, Sabalow spends as much time as possible in Siskiyou County, where he grew up. He’s married and has two daughters, two lunatic cats and a duck-retrieving chocolate lab named Spooner.

About CalMatters

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.

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