Official Names: Flunitrazepam (flu-nih-TRAZ-uh-pam), Rohypnol (roh-HIPP-nahl)
Street Names: Circles, forget-me pill, la rocha, lunch money, Mexican Valium, mind erasers, R-2, rib, ro, roaches, roachies, roapies, roche, roofies, rope, rophies, rophy, ruffies, ruffles, shays, stupefi, wolfies
Drug Classification: Schedule III, depressant
What Kind of Drug Is It?
Rohypnol (roh-HIPP-nahl) is the brand name for the drug flunitrazepam (flu-nih-TRAZ-uh-pam). Rohypnol is a depressant, which means it decreases activity in the brain and the rest of the body. There are two main types of medical depressants: barbiturates (bar-BIH-chuh-rits), which are used as sleeping pills and are often referred to as "downers"; and benzodiazepines (ben-zoh-die-AZ-uh-peenz), a group of drugs used to treat anxiety. Rohypnol is a benzodiazepine.
Rohypnol is often referred to as a sedative-hypnotic as well, because it calms people down and brings on sleep. In addition, Rohypnol causes muscles to relax, eases anxiety (feelings of being extremely overwhelmed, restless, and worried), and reduces the severity of seizure conditions. Although it is approved for use in about sixty countries (primarily as a sleeping aid), it is not and never has been a legal substance in the United States.
In the early to mid-1990s, a marked increase in the use of Rohypnol was being reported worldwide. In the United States, more young people in college and high school were using it recreationally to get high, not to treat a medical condition. Youth used the drug at nightclubs, music festivals, fraternity parties, and all-night dance parties called raves, which typically involve huge crowds of people, loud techno music, and illegal drug use.
Because of its popularity among club-goers, Rohypnol joined the group of drugs commonly referred to as club drugs. These drugs, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), include cocaine, ecstasy (MDMA), GBL, GHB, ketamine, LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), methamphetamine, PCP (phencyclidine), and psilocybin. (Separate entries on each of these drugs are available in this encyclopedia.) All of these substances are used to enhance the club experience.
Date Rape Drug
As Rohypnol was gaining popularity as a club drug, sexual predators realized its power to incapacitate, or paralyze, a person temporarily. The drug also causes a special type of amnesia that stops the brain from remembering new events. Consequently, users find that they cannot remember what goes on during the time they are under the influence of Rohypnol.
The combination of being able to incapacitate a victim and wipe out hours of memories is very attractive to criminals. The drug allows them to take advantage of their prey without much resistance--and have a greater chance of getting away with it. Because of this, Rohypnol is considered a "date rape drug." In the mid- to late-1990s, it was linked to a large number of date and acquaintance rapes. In these cases, the rapist is usually someone the victim knows.
The Swiss drug company Hoffmann-La Roche originally developed Rohypnol in the 1970s. It was one of a number of benzodiazepines the company was working on at the time. Rohypnol turned out to be the most powerful drug of its kind on the market--ten times stronger than Valium, a benzodiazepine. Valium is a legal drug available by prescription in the United States. But Rohypnol has never been approved for sale--even for medical use--in the United States. However, it is one of the most popular benzodiazepines sold in Europe, Mexico, South America, and Asia.
Rohypnol acts rapidly on the body. Its effects kick in about fifteen to twenty minutes after it is taken. Because of its strength and its ability to stop memories from forming, Rohypnol is given to patients as an anesthetic to deaden pain before surgeries. In addition, it is taken as a sedative and sleep aid.
The Problem of Smuggling
Although Rohypnol is not approved for use in the United States, it became popular as a low-cost recreational drug among some drug-using Americans in the 1990s. Recreational drugs are those taken purely to get high. It is believed that Rohypnol made its first U.S. appearance in 1989, when it was brought in from South America to Florida. From that point on, according to the 2003 fact sheet on Rohypnol published by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the drug has been shipped into the United States through international mail or courier services from other countries, especially Colombia. People have been known to cross the U.S. border into Mexico, buy the drug at Mexican pharmacies, then bring it back to the United States.
In the early 1990s, abuse of Rohypnol became a serious problem in the United States. In response, the U.S. Customs Service began cracking down on the smuggling--or illegal import--of Rohypnol into the country. Smuggling was highest in Texas and Florida. This action by U.S. Customs decreased the amount of Rohypnol being brought in to the country.
Rohypnol: The Club Drug
Club drugs are the drugs of choice for use at music festivals, dance parties, and raves. Users take them to enhance the sensations of sight and sound and to heighten their feelings as they interact with others. Because these drugs help break down social inhibitions, users typically take them in crowded settings. The most popular club drugs are ecstasy, GHB, ketamine, and Rohypnol.
The popularity of these drugs is linked to their cost and availability. They are relatively inexpensive (a few dollars each) and easy to distribute and take without being noticed. They all come in pill, powder, or liquid form. Many people take them with alcohol, which increases the risk of side effects. These effects may include dizziness, confusion, and violent behavior and can lead to overdose.
Drugs can cause people to lose control of their minds and bodies for a certain period of time. This leaves people vulnerable to others. In the case of drug-facilitated rape, rapists use drugs to overpower their unsuspecting victims. Most drug-facilitated rapes involve Rohypnol or another fast-acting depressant called GHB. Found in small quantities in the human body, GHB was once marketed as a sleep aid and a body-building supplement. Both Rohypnol and GHB are usually taken in combination with alcohol. These depressants work quickly to incapacitate a victim, making it easier for a rapist to attack.
Rohypnol is a very powerful substance that causes heavy sedation. It leaves users motionless, silent, and unable to remember events that occur during its use. A few years after Rohypnol was introduced in the United States, a high number of sexual assaults were being reported in which the drug played a role in subduing the victim. Rape victims were reporting attacks that they didn't remember but showed physical signs of enduring.
This alarming trend caused the U.S. Congress to pass the Drug-Induced Rape Prevention and Punishment Act of 1996. The act increased the penalties against criminals who use drugs in their attacks or distribute or possess Rohypnol. The DEA banned the drug in the United States in 1997. "No one really knows how common drug-facilitated rape is because today's research tools do not offer a means of measuring the number of incidents," noted Nora Fitzgerald and K. Jack Riley in a 2000 article titled "Drug-Facilitated Rape: Looking for the Missing Pieces."
The Unsuspecting Victim
Rohypnol is tasteless, odorless, and colorless (except for the newer tablets of Rohypnol that contain a dye that is released when mixed with liquids). After a rapist picks a potential victim, he decides how to get the nearly undetectable drug into the victim's drink. He either buys a beverage for the victim and slips the drug into the drink before it is served, or tries to get close enough to the victim to spike the drink when no one is looking. That's why it is so important not to accept drinks from strangers, share drinks, or leave a drink unattended. Drinks in punch bowls should also be avoided.
Once Rohypnol is in a drink and the victim consumes it, the effects of the drug become evident quite quickly, usually within fifteen minutes or so. The victim will begin to feel sick or disoriented and most likely think it's from drinking too much alcohol. People around the victim may not notice anything strange. The victim might even accept help from the would-be rapist in getting to a bathroom or getting home. At this point, the rapist has gained control of the victim and might take advantage of the victim.
Rape victims who are drugged with Rohypnol often don't know how the attack occurred. They remember being at a bar or a party, but the next thing they know they wake up in a strange place and show signs of having been abused. In some cases, victims may even wake up in the middle of an attack but be too physically weakened by the drug to do anything to stop it. Gail Abarbanel, in Fitzgerald and Riley's article, pointed out that "in drug-facilitated rapes, [victims are subjected] to an extreme form of powerlessness."
What Is It Made Of?
Rohypnol is a benzodiazepine. It contains ingredients that slow down the brain and body. Rohypnol is stronger than other benzodiazepines, such as Valium, Xanax, and Halcion, which are available by prescription in the United States. In low doses, Rohypnol sedates and relaxes the user. In higher doses it causes sleep and can incapacitate a person who has consumed it.
An overdose of Rohypnol, which may occur after ingesting about seven or more tablets, can lead to coma and death. Death has occurred most often when Rohypnol has been mixed with heroin or other depressants such as alcohol. (Entries on heroin and alcohol are available in this encyclopedia.)
Rohypnol was originally a small, round white pill with the name Roche etched into it along with the number indicating the dose of the pill (either a "1" for 1 milligram or a "2" for 2 milligrams). This pill is still available, along with the reformulated, larger, oblong green tablet with the number 542 on one side. The number 542 tablet contains a bright blue dye that is released when it is put in a drink. This dye alerts the drinker to the presence of the drug and is intended to stop an impending assault from occurring.
How Is It Taken?
Rohypnol comes in pill or tablet form or as a solution to be injected. The pill or tablet is swallowed, chewed, or put under the tongue to dissolve slowly. Less commonly, it is crushed and snorted or dissolved and injected. It is also added to marijuana and smoked. Rohypnol comes in doses of 1 or 2 milligrams. It affects the user rather quickly, within fifteen to twenty minutes, and the effects last anywhere from eight to eighteen hours.
Rohypnol is approved for use and sale in dozens of countries. It is typically smuggled into the United States, where it is sold on the street or in clubs in its original packaging. Many users think it is safe because it comes individually wrapped in the manufacturer's packaging and looks like other drugs sold by prescription or at the drugstore. However, any substance taken for recreational use involves risks, such as overdose or even death, especially if mixed with other drugs like alcohol. Poor substitutes for Rohypnol can be found in the United States and are passed off to the buyer as the real thing. Taking these substitutes can be even more dangerous than taking the original, as the contents of the drug are unknown.
Sexual offenders and other criminals have found that they can slip crushed Rohypnol pills into a victim's drink without the victim knowing. The drug dissolves somewhat in liquid and cannot be tasted, smelled, or even seen. As the victim consumes the drink, the drug incapacitates him or her, which allows the criminal to take action. This series of events has been known to occur at group gatherings, where people may not be keeping a constant eye on their drinks.
Are There Any Medical Reasons for Taking This Substance?
Rohypnol is not approved for medical use in the United States. It is widely used in other countries as a sleep aid. Due to its rapid onset, sedating features, and effect on memory, Rohypnol is also used prior to surgery as an anesthetic.
After Rohypnol arrived on the U.S. drug scene in 1989, its abuse became popular among young people. Despite measures to keep the drug out of the United States, that abuse continued. Use especially occurred within southern border states such as Texas and Florida, where it is imported from Mexico and Colombia. Many believe that the drug's popularity stems from the fact that it is relatively inexpensive, about fifty cents to five dollars a tablet, and appears safe since it comes in the original manufacturer's packaging. Some abusers also mistakenly think it will escape detection by drug tests. However, it is detectable for up to seventy-two hours after it is taken.
Rohypnol is usually taken recreationally to enhance the effects of other drugs, such as alcohol, marijuana, or ecstasy. The 2003 ONDCP fact sheet on Rohypnol states that "the predominant user age group is 13- to 30-years-old and users tend to be male." Paul M. Gahlinger, writing in Illegal Drugs: A Complete Guide to Their History, Chemistry, Use and Abuse, commented, "To young people, getting 'roached out' is a novel, seemingly benign way of getting high, different from the marijuana, cocaine, and heroin of the older generation. The fact that this drug's main effect is heavy sedation--and not euphoria, stimulation, or hallucinations--is an interesting commentary on the life of the modern high school student."
Data about the number of individuals who abuse Rohypnol are not generally available. The usual sources of such data, such as the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) and the Drug Awareness Warning Network (DAWN) either do not collect such data, or the number of cases reported are too small to provide reliable information. Those data are available for high school students, however, from the Monitoring the Future (MTF) study, conducted by Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. According to the most recent MTF study (2014), 0.3 percent of eighth graders, 0.5 percent of tenth graders, and 0.7 percent of twelfth graders reported having used the drug at least once in the year preceding the survey. Those numbers had been declining gradually over the history of the MTF survey from 1.0 percent, 1.1 percent, and 1.1 percent for those three grades respectively since 1996.
Rohypnol has been used to help ease withdrawal symptoms from other drugs such as heroin. Withdrawal symptoms occur when the user gradually cuts back on the amount of a drug being taken until it can be discontinued entirely. Such symptoms include a variety of physical and psychological effects, depending on the drug.
Cocaine users have taken Rohypnol to help come down after a drug-using binge. Specifically, Rohypnol has been known to help with the depression that may occur after using stimulants like cocaine. Some use it as a cure for a hangover, the uncomfortable feelings--such as the pounding headache, upset stomach, and trembling feelings--that often occur after a bout of heavy drinking.
Criminals worldwide have used the power of Rohypnol in a variety of crimes. Both females and males have been victims of Rohypnol-assisted crimes. Rapists have used this sedative-hypnotic to incapacitate their victims so they can overpower them with ease. Thieves have also used Rohypnol to knock out people so they could steal money and credit cards from their wallets. It should be noted that a 2009 German study found benzodiazepines in only about 2% of cases where a pharmacological agent was used to facilitate sexual assault, although the authors note that this may be caused by the relatively rapid elimination of short acting benzodiazepines from blood and urine. Alcohol remains the biggest problem in drug facilitated sexual assault.
Effects on the Body
Rohypnol is a very strong benzodiazepine. It is ten times more powerful than the other popular benzodiazepine Valium, and its effects are felt quickly by the user. The drug typically works on the body for up to eighteen hours (sometimes longer). During that time, a user will feel drowsy, disoriented, and even lose consciousness. Most people will suffer from a form of amnesia that prohibits memory formation for as long as the drug is in their system, although this memory loss is common to most drugs in the benzodiazepine class. Too much Rohypnol can lead to overdose. The chances of overdosing increase substantially when Rohypnol is mixed with alcohol or other depressants.
Users can build up a tolerance to Rohypnol. This results in the person needing more and more of the drug to get the same effect as the first time he or she used it. Rohypnol abuse can also lead to physical and psychological dependence, which causes cravings that can make it very difficult to stop taking the drug.
The longer a user is on Rohypnol, the greater the degree of tolerance that occurs, and the worse the withdrawal symptoms will be when he or she stops taking it.
Reactions with Other Drugs or Substances
Rohypnol is most commonly mixed with alcohol, since it is found primarily at parties, raves, and clubs. It is used in the party atmosphere either to enhance a high or to aid a criminal in sedating a victim. Alcohol is a depressant. When Rohypnol, which causes sedation or sleep, is mixed with alcohol, a user may lose consciousness and even die.
Depressants and other benzodiazepines should never be taken with Rohypnol. Also, users should not combine it with amphetamines (am-FETT-uh-meens), which are stimulant drugs that increase mental alertness, reduce appetite, and help keep users awake. The combination of both drugs increases the risk of seizures.
Treatment for Habitual Users
Rohypnol is highly addictive, or habit-forming. Experts advise users who want to quit the habit for good to consult with a physician. Sudden withdrawal, often called going "cold turkey," is not recommended and can be dangerous. The body of a Rohypnol addict is accustomed to receiving a regular supply of the drug. Without it, the user can experience painful withdrawal symptoms such as headache, muscular pain, hallucinations, delirium, and seizures (which can occur more than a week after a person stops taking Rohypnol). Other symptoms include intense irritability, anxiety, tension, and restlessness. Numbness and tingling in the arms and legs may also occur.
Treatment programs exist that help users give up addictive substances. There are inpatient and outpatient programs, depending on the severity of the addiction. According to the "Pulse Check" report, "treatment numbers [for Rohypnol] remain low when compared with other drugs." However, the number is rising steadily. About 98 percent of these treatment clients are male.
Drug addiction is curable. However, even after successfully recovering from a period of abuse, addicts usually need support from others in order to stay off drugs for good. Many support groups offer safe havens for addicts to share stories of their struggles and meet others who are going through the same experience. Knowing that others are feeling the same way can help users gain the strength needed to fight their drug cravings.
Rohypnol is an illegal substance in the United States. Taking it for any reason is breaking the law and is putting the user at risk of addiction and even death. Even a low dose can lead to an adverse reaction or negative side effect, especially if it is taken in combination with other drugs. A small habit can lead to full-blown abuse and ultimately addiction. If a user overdoses, an antidote called flumazenil (flu-MAH-zin-ihl) may be administered to the patient. A patient usually recovers from an overdose within about seven hours if treated by emergency medical personnel.
Rohypnol is legal in more than sixty countries but not in the United States. It was originally classified along with the other benzodiazepines as a Schedule IV drug. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classifies drugs in five categories called schedules. These schedules are based on a substance's medicinal value, possible harmfulness, and potential for abuse and addiction. Schedule I is reserved for the most dangerous drugs that have no recognized medical use.
In February 1995, the DEA made two enormous seizures of Rohypnol--one in Louisiana and one in Texas. That same year, Rohypnol was moved to Schedule III status. All other benzodiazepines remained at Schedule IV. In 1997, the DEA banned Rohypnol from being imported into the United States. Some states have classified it as a Schedule I drug, and the DEA is considering doing the same.
Drug-Induced Rape Prevention and Punishment Act of 1996
The high number of rapes that involved Rohypnol and other date rape drugs in the mid-1990s led the U.S. government to create the Drug-Induced Rape Prevention and Punishment Act of 1996. This act states that a person who uses a drug in a sexual assault will receive harsher penalties, such as higher fines and longer prison terms--up to twenty years. Just possessing Rohypnol is punishable by three years in prison and a fine. In 1997, penalties for possessing and selling Rohypnol were stiffened even more to reflect the penalties of Schedule I drugs.
Difficulty Prosecuting Rapists Who Use Rohypnol
Since Rohypnol causes amnesia, a rape victim may awaken after the drug has worn off and see and feel physical signs of being assaulted but not remember much or anything at all about the attack. The victim may not even know the identity of the attacker. Rohypnol provides a rapist with the possibility of remaining completely anonymous. Having limited memory of an attack or not remembering it at all makes it extremely difficult to find and prosecute a perpetrator.
In addition, some victims wait too long before reporting an attack to the police. They may feel ashamed, embarrassed, afraid, or blame themselves for the rape. No matter the circumstances--even if the victim doesn't know the identity of the rapist--it is important for a victim to go to the authorities and report a rape right away. The victim can be examined and evidence can be built for a case against the attacker. The evidence is better the sooner it is collected.
If Rohypnol use is suspected in a rape case, the victim will need to be tested for the drug. However, Rohypnol tests are time-sensitive. The drug is only detectable in the body for up to seventy-two hours after it is consumed. Waiting beyond seventy-two hours could result in a negative test for Rohypnol, which would weaken the chances of convicting the perpetrator. In suspected rape cases, Roche Laboratories offers a free screening for Rohypnol.
- loss of memory
- a drug used to treat anxiety and calm people down
- inner thoughts that keep people from engaging in certain activities
- a state of unconsciousness from which a person cannot be aroused by noise or other stimuli
- pronounced yu-FOR-ee-yuh; a state of extreme happiness and enhanced well-being; the opposite of dysphoria
- visions or other perceptions of things that are not really present
- a mood disorder that causes people to have feelings of hopelessness, loss of pleasure, self-blame, and sometimes suicidal thoughts
- substances that increase the activity of a living organism or one of its parts
- psychological dependence
- the belief that a person needs to take a certain substance in order to function
- a mental disturbance marked by confusion, hallucinations, and difficulty focusing attention and communicating
- a remedy to reverse the effects of a poison
Banned in the United States
In 1997, Rohypnol was banned in the United States. This means it cannot be sold or used in the United States in any form or for any purpose, including medical uses. Other drugs with similar properties, such as Valium, would have to be used in its place. As of 2005, Rohypnol was still being used in Europe and Latin America. Some South American countries even sell it over the counter.
Despite the U.S. ban, Rohypnol that is manufactured and sold legally in other countries manages to make its way into the United States. However, the supply of the smuggled drug does not always match the high demand on American streets. To meet that demand, dealers may provide poor substitutes that are not made under the strict quality-control measures followed by the actual manufacturer of Rohypnol. Therefore, a user cannot be sure of the drug's effectiveness, purity, or safety. A so-called "knock-off" Rohypnol pill could contain more or less of the active ingredients than the original, and it may contain other substances that could be harmful to the user.
A Life-Saving Dye
In response to the trend of criminals slipping Rohypnol into the drinks of unsuspecting victims, Rohypnol manufacturer Hoffmann-La Roche added a dye to the Rohypnol tablet. When this reformulated tablet is dropped into a drink, a bright blue color is released. The dye alerts the victim that his or her drink has been tampered with. However, many predators are aware of the dye and may order a blue cocktail for their victims or seek out victims with bluish-colored mixed drinks. Tropical drinks such as the Blue Hawaii are made with curaçao (KYOOR-uh-soh or KYOOR-uh-sow), a bright blue liqueur with an orangey taste.
The common side effects of Rohypnol are:
- Lowered heart rate
- Mood swings
- Slowed breathing
- Slurred speech
- Staggered walk
- Violent behavior
More than Just a Date Rape Drug
Criminals worldwide have found that they can sedate people with Rohypnol and steal from them. In Asia, it was reported that prostitutes in the Wan Chai bar district in China were drugging men with Rohypnol and then stealing their money and credit cards. They would even target men at ATM machines, watch as the victim keyed in his pin number, distract and drug him, and then steal his ATM card and money from his account.