I tried out a new test that tells you if a roofie was slipped into your drink — here's how it works

Hilary Brueck/Business InsiderNick Letourneau developed a button-sized test that checks for roofies and other benzodiazepines in drinks.
  • A new button-sized drug-testing kit can identify common date-rape drugs in drinks.
  • The test is sold by Undercover Colours, a company that tried to bring a drug-testing nail polish to market four years ago.
  • The tests retail for $US5-7 each online.

In 2014, four male college students at North Carolina State University came up with an unusual plan to combat drug-facilitated sexual assaults on campus: drug-detecting nail polish.

They founded a startup called Undercover Colours, and the bold idea quickly lit up the internet. Shark Tank investor Mark Cuban called it “brilliant,” while feminist author Jessica Valenti wondered in a Guardian headline, “Why is it easier to invent anti-rape nail polish than find a way to stop rapists?”

But four years and $US8.2 million in investor funding later, we’re no closer to a nail polish drug test.

Instead, Undercover Colours is launching a drug test based on the technology used in pregnancy pee strips.

Users can dabble a bit of a drink onto the button-sized test, and within about 30 seconds, you’ll see either one or two little pink lines that reveal whether the liquid has been contaminated with any benzodiazepine drugs. Each test costs $US5 to $US7 (depending on how many you buy at a time).

The class of drugs the test looks for includes Xanax, Valium, and Rohypnol, which are some of the most common date-rape drugs, or roofies, in use according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.

“They can cause amnesia without necessarily making you pass out or fall asleep, but they can also sedate you to the point of, basically, incapacitated,” Undercover Colours biochemist Nick Letourneau told Business Insider during a demonstration of his new test. “A lot of these are prescribed for things like anti-anxiety and insomnia, so that, combined with alcohol, makes a particularly dangerous combination.”

A drug test that fits on a keychain

The test has two lines on it: the first is a control line, which lets you know the test is working properly. If a second line appears, the drink is safe. But the absence of a second line means your drink has been drugged.

The concept used in the test is called lateral flow. It’s a kind of obstacle course for liquids, and depending on how you set it up, the technique can test for anything from a hormone produced by placenta (in the case of pregnancy tests) to a date-rape drug.

In this version of the test, liquid droplets on the paper unlock a bunch of coloured particles inside that begin to flow across the sticky strip. Benzodiazepine drugs, however, prevent the pink dye from sticking to the paper. So if the test strip doesn’t fully turn colours, you’ll know drugs may be at work.

To avoid confusion about how to read the results, the test offers a reminder about how to read the lines – the spot where the first line appears is labelled “bad” and the second line is labelled “good.”

The drink tested in this photo, for example, is contaminated:

Hilary Brueck/Business InsiderMy drink had an anti-anxiety drug in it, and the test picked it up.

Undercover Colours says its testing has shown the product is 99% reliable. And when it fails, it gives false positives.

“We’ve tested 8,000 medallions, and haven’t had a false negative,” Letourneau said. “Meaning, we always detect the drug, when it’s there.”

The product launched Thursday and is available on the Undercover Colours website, where five tests cost $US35, and 10 cost $US50.

I tried the test out with some tequila, but I’m not sure it will really prevent rape

Before the test hit the market, I met up with Letourneau to try out the test. He brought tequila and drugs, and we prepared two cocktails: one just had a shot of Jose Cuervo, while the other had tequila that was laced with diazepam, which you may know by its brand name, Valium. Sure enough, the test of the drugged drink only had one line, not two.

But because the test is tiny and bar lighting can be dim, it might be tough to know for sure whether you’re seeing just one line or two in a social setting.

I was also dubious whether people would really pay $US5 to $US7 per test, but Undercover Colours CEO Barbara Cook assured me that in focus groups, parents of college students were eager to buy the new medallions for their kids.

Even so, people have to remember to carry a test around with them and use it in the right moments. The medallions come with carrying cases that you can slip onto the back of a smartphone or add discreetly to a keychain, but it still seems like a lot of extra steps and cost to ensure your drink isn’t drugged. Using the test regularly is a total habit shift – something humans aren’t always so good at.

“We do know we’re breaking ground here,” Cook told me. “This is not culturally how we currently behave.”

A serious problem in need of a larger solution

At least one in four women in the US have experienced sexual assault, according to “conservative estimates” from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Around a third of perpetrators use drugs and/or alcohol to commit rape, according to statistics compiled by the US Department of Justice in 2000. But it’s hard to know how many cases involve drugs like benzodiazepines because most people don’t test their drinks.

A US campus sexual assault survey of 6,800 undergraduates in 2007 found that 13.7% reported they’d been victims of at least one sexual assault since they started college, but just 0.6% were certain they’d been the victim of a drug-facilitated sexual assault. A2009 report in the Canadian Medical Association Journal surveyed 882 women in seven sexual assault treatment centres, and found that more than 20% reported a drug-facilitated sexual assault.

Alcohol, on the other hand, is known to be a major accessory to rape: the NIH says roughly half of all sexual assaults involve alcohol. Drinking can exacerbate an already bad situation, hamper motor control, and increase impulsivity, which can lead to violence.

A test for drugs in drinks isn’t going to singlehandedly solve America’s rape problem. Plus, as many critics have pointed out, it shouldn’t really be the victim’s responsibility to ensure every person around them at a bar or a party isn’t a creep.

But the new lateral-flow test may help some people stay safe, and it could have other possible uses, too.

The test could be used for any kind of liquid, from water, to blood, sweat, and urine. So a different version of the kit might some day be able to answer questions like: Is this tap water safe to drink? Is my blood healthy? Is this tomato contaminated with salmonella?

Letourneau said those could all be future ways the company could expand if the tiny tech takes off.

“Our overall mission is having an impact on society,” he said. “Honestly, there’s a lot of different ways we could go.”

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