Illegal drug Rohypnol linked to date rapes

Joel Sawyer

University of Minnesota


Kristin, a University of Minnesota sophomore, awoke after a night of dancing at a popular downtown nightclub with bruises all over her body and no memory of how she got them.

The last thing she recalls is being approached by a tall man with long black hair, who leaned over to introduce himself to her on the darkened dance floor.

Kristin, who asked to have her last name withheld, said she believes she may have been a victim of the "rape drug" Rohypnol .

When she awoke in her bed the next morning she was confused and disoriented. "I felt like, 'What the hell happened to me?"' she said.

"l felt something was wrong, I had bruises from head to toe ... and for nine hours had conversations and interactions I can't recall."

Rohypnol is a powerful sedative commonly prescribed as a sleeping pill in Europe and Latin America since 1975. It is illegal in the United States.

The drug causes drowsiness, loss of inhibition and judgment, dizziness, confusion and in cases of high dosage, amnesia. The drug's effects are intensified when used in conjunction with alcohol.

Rohypnol is smuggled into the US primarily from Colombia and Mexico in tablet form, according to US Drug Enforcement Agency documents. The tablets dissolve easily in beverages such as soft drinks, beer and liquor, leaving no taste, color, or odor.

Rohypnol is becoming the drug of choice for would-be rapists whose identity is often masked by the amnesia-like effects of the drug, said Pamela Smith, a registered nurse at Boynton Health Service's Women's Clinic.

"There are women found in cars without clothes on who couldn't remember anything except that they feel violated," she said.

Several days after the early October incident, Kristin had pieced together what happened, combining shards of her own memory and her friend Julie's recollections.

Shortly after Kristin met the man with the long hair, she began to act "wasted and drunk," even though she had consumed little alcohol that night. Kristin said she thinks the man spiked her drink with a Rohypnol tablet when he leaned close to her to introduce himself.

The drug's effects can begin within minutes, said Ann Marie Anglin, a spokesperson for Hoffmann-La Roche, Rohypnol's manufacturer. And they apparently did with Kristin.

What started out as innocent dancing with the man quickly progressed into the man's attempt to escort Kristin out of the bar. Kristin believes the bruises on her arms and neck were a result of the man trying to force her to leave with him.

Fortunately, Julie intervened and took Kristin home.

"I shudder to imagine what might have happened," Kristin said, "I had no decision-making capabilities at all." Kristin said she believes that without her friend's help, she would have been abducted and raped.

Rohypnol comes from the same drug family-benzodiazepines-as Valium and Halcion, but has a much more powerful, hypnotic effect than those drugs, said Anglin.

To help identify victims of Rohypnol-related sexual assaults and combat negative press reports, Hoffmann-La Roche began offering free drug testing this summer for suspected victims.

"We're concerned because it's our drug, and we're quite disturbed because it's being used for this unfortunate purpose," Anglin said.

Suspected victims can have their urine tested within 72 hours of exposure at a health care facility such as University Hospital or the campus health service. The sample will be mailed to and tested by Roche Laboratories in Massachusetts, free of charge.

Until recently there has been no way of detecting the drug's presence in cases of sexual assault, and few confirmed victims have been identified. But hopefully, with the new test, Anglin said, suspected rapists can be identified and prosecuted.

The use of Rohypnol in sexual assaults began in Florida and Texas, but has quickly spread north to afflict universities such as Penn State, whose health authorities reported as many as 10 suspected Rohypnol-related rapes this fall.

Minnesota students are also at risk, according to Jamie Tiedemann, director of the University's Program Against Sexual Violence.

She said there is a sense that there is some use of the drug on campus, but refused to relate any specifics about suspected incidents.

Smith agreed and said several incidents of Rohypnol poisoning are suspected on campus, but none has been confirmed.

"We don't want people to fall prey to this," Smith said. she recommended that people "watch their drinks, go with a partner, girlfriend ... but don't go alone."

From July 1, 1995, to June 30, 1996, 151 people were victims of sex-related crimes on campus.

Anglin said Hoffmann-La Roche is cooperating with the Drug Enforcement Administration and other law enforcement agencies to stop illegal diversions of the drug into the United States. In late September the company discontinued production of the potent two-milligram tablets, which are the dosage of choice among rapists.

Last month, Congress approved a bill that imposes much harsher criminal penalties for using any drugs to commit sexual assault and other violent acts. The bill provides a maximum penalty of up to 20 years in prison for using any controlled substance, including Rohypnol, to commit a violent act.

Under New York State law, a person is guilty of rape in the first degree if sexual intercourse occurs when one party is "incapable of consent by reason of being physically helpless."


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