New drug, 10 times more potent
than Valium, shows up in U.S.

By Emily Gerkin
LIFE Staff Writer

Federal and local officials are worried about a new drug that's illegal in the United States, but can legally be brought across U.S. borders.

Rohypnol, a form of the drug called flunitrazepam, is commonly prescribed as a sleeping pill in Europe, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. It has sedative characteristics that can slow motor skills, induce amnesia and relax muscles.

Health officials compare Rohypnol to Valium, but it's 10 times more potent, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

While the drug's causing some panic, Mark Minelli, manager of CMU's Health Advocacy Services, said there's no mention of the drug in any of his newest literature.

"We've been getting e-mail messages from around the country warning us of this new drug. It's really hard to find information on it, only a couple of people really know what it is," Minelli said.

Flunitrazepam was introduced in Europe in the 1970s and has been used by cocaine addicts since the 1980s to counter side effects of using cocaine, such as "coming down," the Office of National Drug Control Policy says.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it is most widely prescribed in Europe as a sedative or hypnotic drug.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy noted flunitrazepam is commonly used along with alcohol and other drugs. It's often used by all kinds of youths, but gangs are a constant factor. And there's evidence of college students taking the drug along with beer.

The office warns the drug can be a gateway to harder drugs and other drug combinations. Robert Storrer, prevention educator for Health Services, said the drug is most likely to be abused with alcohol, cocaine and other stimulants, heroine and as a disabling agent in date rape situations.

"Very seldom is the drug used by itself. It's used to intensify the other drugs, or help cocaine addicts come down, make the crash easier. In the case of date rape, it makes the woman lose control of her physical and psychological skills and creates temporary amnesia," Storrer said.

Rohypnol is not licensed for sale in the U.S., but it can be obtained easily in Mexico and Europe, according to Drug Enforcement Agency reports.

When the drug is legally administered, it is used for the short-term treatment of insomnia and as a mild sedative.

The U.S. classifies flunitrazepam as a Schedule Four drug, defined as substances with a low potential for abuse and acceptable for medical use in the U.S.

I tried to call around on this and it was a goose chase. The last place I was told to call was the prosecutors office, but they were already closed.

In March 1995, the World Health Organization moved flunitrazepam to Schedule Three, meaning there will be more documentation on the movement of the drug.

In a memorandum provided by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the DEA advocates Rohypnol be classified as a Schedule One drug, defined as substances with a high potential for abuse and dependence and no medical use in the U.S. Other drugs classified as Schedule One are heroin, PCP and marijuana.

Jim Tolliver, who has a doctorate in pharmacology, is working with the DEA in Washington, D.C. on its Rohypnol research.

Tolliver said customs allow individuals, with a prescription, to bring up to a three months supply of medication into the U.S. In the case of Rohypnol, that's approximately 180 tablets. It is sold as 10 pills in a half pack, $3 per pill.

Flunitrazepam is marketed in one milligram and two milligrams varieties, with two milligrams being considered a "heavy dose."

"The vast majority of people bringing it across are very young, college age students. All they have to do is fill out a declaration form (which lists what they are bringing across the border)," Trolliver said.

"This is a very sore spot with the DEA, Federal Drug Administration and U.S. Customs," Trolliver said. "When the whole AIDS thing broke, the U.S. formed a policy to allow people to get drugs, anti-viral drugs, that aren't available in the States and bring them here to help them."

"It was a compassionate policy, but now it is being abused," he said.

Trolliver said Rohypnol is classified at Schedule Four because when it first came out there was no evidence of its abuse in the U.S.

"We're really trying to get it at Schedule One. We have over 2,300 documented cases of abuse so far. It has surpassed everything in Florida," he said.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy says the use of Rohypnol may lead to the development of physical and psychological dependence. The risk of dependence increases with dose and duration and can be considerably greater in patients with histories of alcohol and drug abuse.

Once physical dependence has developed, abrupt termination of the drug will result in withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, muscle pains, extreme anxiety, tension, confusion and irritability. Extreme cases of withdrawal may experience numbness and tingling of the extremities, hypersensitivity to light and noise, convulsions and hallucinations.

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy memo, Rohypnol may induce temporary amnesia, with the risk increasing at higher doses.

The condition occurs most often within the first few hours after ingestion of the drug. This kind of amnesia can last one and a half days, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Sedation occurs 20-30 minutes after its administration, with the peak effect at one to two hours, and can last for eight hours. The Office of National Drug Control Policy has found evidence of impaired motor skills 12 hours after ingestion and the impairment increases greatly when alcohol is consumed in combination with the drug.

Flunitrazepam only will show in urine if an expensive urine test is administered. "Prosecuting Rohypnol cases are hard because it's not easily detected," Minelli said. "It's hard to identify, you have to be testing specifically for it."

"A breath test won't find it. But when used with alcohol, it intensifies the way a person reacts. So even if they look really intoxicated when they are pulled over, a simple breath test won't show the drug or even that much alcohol," he said.

Because of the high number of Rohypnol abuse cases in Florida, police departments in Dade County, Fla. are now prepared to detect flunitrazepam in urine specimens of impaired drivers with low alcohol levels.

"Rohypnol is masked by other drugs very well. My understanding is the screening protocol in Michigan isn't set up for that," Storrer said.

The first documented abuse of Rohypnol in the United States was in June 1993. In the beginning, Rohypnol was only seen in southern Florida, but since then it has spread throughout the southern states and cases are now being reported in other areas of the United States, such as Louisiana, Maryland, New Mexico and California, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy memo.

The office has found dealers now selling the drug to youths, not just addicts. Youths choose flunitrazepam because its possession will not make them criminals, it is cheaper than alcohol and there are no problems with blood alcohol levels.

Flunitrazepam began showing up in Texas in November 1994, and was used primarily by gangs.

Adolescents dissolve flunitrazepam in their drinks for a fast fizz effect and users describe "floating" when combining it with marijuana, the Office of National Drug Control Policy memo stated.

Combining cocaine and flunitrazepam produces a fast hit followed by a mellow state. It also is used as a cure for alcohol hangovers.

Flunitrazepam has moved north in Texas and to other states very quickly. Rohypnol is the fastest growing drug problem in southern Florida, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Trolliver said 27 states have reported cases of Rohypnol abuse.

"As far as I know, there has only been one reported case in Michigan and that was three months ago. I have heard it may be in the Lansing and Ann Arbor areas, but I haven't heard anything from the state police," Trolliver said.

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