A grassroots group that's examining safety and sexual assault issues in Missoula's nightlife and entertainment community is raising awareness about the SipChip, a small, portable test that can indicate whether a drink has been spiked with drugs.
The test is about the size of a quarter and can be stored in a case that clips to a key ring or can be mounted to the back of a smartphone. The manufacturer, Undercover Colors, says that it "detects most common date rape drugs including roofies, Xanax, and Valium in as fast as 30 seconds, with 99.3% accuracy," according to its website.
Holly Fry, a clinical research scientist and DJ, read papers about the test over the years and reached out to the company, which didn't yet have any wholesalers in Montana. She purchased a bulk amount, and she and other members of her group have been talking with bars and other entertainment venues about stocking the test.
Fry said the product, only about a year old, needed some sort of introduction in Missoula, since "bars might not be interested in it if they didn't understand how effective it was, or how easy to use it is."
She and other members of the group also believe the presence of the test will be a deterrent "because it will send a very clear message that 'Hey, we're aware that this happens, and we actually care,'" she said.
They'll be distributing SipChips at Disco BloodBath, the annual Halloween dance party at Southgate Mall on Saturday as a way to spread the word.
The SipChip is easy to use. You remove a cover and apply a drop of your beverage into a port. It takes between 30 seconds and three minutes to finish. It will signal "good" if it's safe, and "bad" if it detects a range of drugs. SipChips arrive in sealed packaging with expiration dates and are good for 90 days once removed from the package. The retail cost through the manufacturer website is about $5 per test.
The test is a tool, Fry said, and not a solution to sexual assault. Bloodbath promoter Logan Foret concurred, saying "it's an easy way to start normalizing the conversation" if the tests are present in bars and venues.
The informal group of about two dozen people, who describe themselves as a "venue safety task force," includes musicians and performers of all genres and others in the entertainment community. They started meeting earlier this year after two women said their drinks were spiked at a show at Free Cycles community bike shop.
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Recently, they approached the Make Your Move Missoula campaign about adapting its training workshop for bar staff to include other people who work in entertainment — anyone from musicians, performers, DJs, trivia hosts, people who help run DIY or alternative spaces, or sound engineers or hosts. This month, Make Your Move conducted an online survey of such industry workers and is holding listening sessions to develop its workshops.
Brenna Merrill, an outreach specialist with Missoula City-County's Relationship Violence Services, works on the Make Your Move campaign. She also emphasized the importance of "primary prevention" strategies that stop assaults from happening in the first place, and reducing risk by monitoring your drinks, going out with friends and making sure everyone returns home safely.
"They reduce risk that harm is going to happen, but it doesn't change the larger cultural setting where sexual assault or sexual harassment is acceptable," she said. Prevention strategies like these need to go "hand in hand" with efforts to change the broader culture, something that the Make Your Move works on through its campaigns and workshops.
Regarding the potential for workshops, Fry added that "the bar staff can only see so much."
She reeled off questions people have asked her about dealing with a particular situation they might observe: "What can I do if I see something that kind of doesn't sit right, what's legal for me to do?" she said. "How do I make sure I don't make something worse, you know? Because that's a very real possibility, maybe what you see is somebody who is in a relationship and they go home and that person is now assaulted because somebody tried to do the right thing?"
Nate Biehl, another musician working with the group, said a more distant, long-term goal would be developing a bystander intervention training that's open to all members of the public.
For now, the group is trying to generate interest in SipChips from venues and bars and connecting them with the company directly, and working toward the bystander training.
"It's a piece of the puzzle that we're all going to be having to put together," so people can go about their day without fear," Fry said.