Rohypnol is a depressant drug and sedative which is part of the Benzodiazepine group of pharmaceuticals (of which Diazepam and Temazepam are also part).
Though it has legitimate medical purposes, most notably as a hypnotic used to induce sleep in certain cases of insomnia, it is most well known as a so-called “date rape” drug used to intoxicate and incapacitate unwitting victims. It has also been linked to addictive recreational drug use.
Rohypnol is actually a trade name for the drug, and its proper pharmaceutical name is Flunitrazepam. Like other Benzodiazepines, it acts upon natural neurotransmitters in the brain to produce its sedative effects. Specifically, it enhances the potency of the GABA (Gamma Amino Butyric Acid) neurotransmitter, whose function is to prevent messages from being sent and received by brain cells, effectively lowering brain activity. The overall effect of this is that the individual falls asleep, or with lower doses becomes very calm and sedated.
Due to its strong sedative effects the drug has been used to sedate some hospital patients prior to operations, and to treat short-term insomnia. However, like many other Benzodiazepines its use for this purpose has declined due to the potential for addiction and the existence of more effective and less risky drugs.
In many countries, Rohypnol is illegal to possess without a prescription. In the US however it is not available on prescription and is deemed illegal in any form. In the UK it is not available on the NHS but it is on private prescription, and is a Class C drug.
However a black market in the drug has emerged, and it is often smuggled from countries with looser restrictions.
Its illicit use as a drug used to pacify women for sexual assault is widely publicised, and its potential for this purpose is found in the fact that it is generally colourless, odourless, tasteless and quickly dissolved. However it is far from being the only date rape drug, and some research suggests that it is used in this way far less frequently than is commonly thought.
A more common but less well known illicit use of Rohypnol is its recreational use as a ‘club drug’ to induce euphoria, relaxation and intoxication. It is often taken in conjunction with other drugs such as Alcohol, Heroin and Cocaine, and may form part of a multi-drug habit.
Rohypnol is a brand name for Flunitrazepam, which is produced by pharmaceutical company Hoffman-LaRoche. Other international trade names for the drug include Flunipam, Hypnocalm, Narcozep, Darkene and Valsera.
Rohypnol also has many different names in common usage, including: Roofies, Rophies, Rope, Ruffies, Roche, La Roche, Roach, Forget Me Pill, R2 and Mexican Valium.
The drug is almost always in the form of a small pill, which is often white. However it is reportedly sometimes crushed into a fine powder for illicit recreational use and then snorted through the nose. It may also be dissolved into a drink to be consumed, and because it is virtually invisible once mixed in, this has facilitated its use as a date rape drug. The drug’s manufacturers have since added a blue dye to counteract this, but black market pills often don’t have this dye included.
As a depressant, Rohypnol’s main function is to ‘depress’ or slow down brain activity, creating a sedative effect. Once taken, the effects of the drug can take effect in less than 20 minutes.
The effects of the drug are often compared to extreme drunkenness, and the individual may appear very drowsy and have little control, slurring their speech and otherwise seeming incoherent and ‘not with it’. In this state the user of the drug, whether they intended to take it or not, is more susceptible to accidents and to coercion by other people.
As well as being used for date rape, Rohypnol has also been used to facilitate thefts. The effects of the drug can persist for 8 hours or more, leaving the individual vulnerable and in some cases helpless for long periods of time.
Memory loss can be substantial and total, with the individual having little or no recollection of the events that unfolded while they were under the influence of the drug.
When used with other drugs, particularly other depressants such as alcohol, Rohypnol can become very dangerous and potentially lead to respiratory failure and other life threatening complications.
Like many other Benzodiazepine medicines, Rohypnol has a high potential for physical addiction, as well as psychological dependency. Because an individual can build up a tolerance to the drug over time, larger and larger doses are required to achieve a similar effect.
In many cases Rohypnol may be used to enhance the effects of another drug, such as Heroin, and this can lead to the forming of a Rohypnol dependency as a secondary addiction. Withdrawal effects from Rohypnol can be severe, leading them to take more of the drug to mitigate these unpleasant sensations.
Rohypnol, or Flunitrazepam, is manufactured by the Swiss pharmaceutical company Hoffman-LaRoche and its subsidiaries in Europe and South America. It is not however manufactured or available on prescription in the US, a country with a high abuse rate of the substance.
In the United States the primary origin of Rohypnol on the black market is via smuggling operations from Mexico and countries in South America where the drug is available on prescription legally. As with other black market drugs, this illicit trade is usually facilitated by organised criminals. In addition to physically smuggling it across borders, the small packaged pills may be smuggled into the country via the ordinary postal routes or by courier.
Since the 1990s, US authorities have had some success cracking down on the illegal supply of Rohypnol with substantial border seizures, but trafficking in the drug continues.
In other countries where the drug’s use is legal with a prescription, Rohypnol may find its way to the street after diversion from pharmaceutical suppliers and outlets, theft, forgery of prescriptions and a variety of other means.
These black market supplies of the drug will then filter out to street level dealers and be sold to users in much the same way as other illicit drugs.
To prevent the drug being used for ‘date rape’ Hoffman-La Roche introduced a dye to the tablets which turn a drink blue when dissolved. However older and illicit versions of the drug are sold on the street which do not have this characteristic.
Whether it is used as prescribed by a doctor or taken illicitly for recreational purposes, Rohypnol has a strong potential for abuse and dependency, as do most Benzodiazepines. When prescribed to treat insomnia it is usually on a short-term basis for this very reason.
A person who is addicted to Rohypnol may exhibit a wide variety of symptoms that indicate its use. They may appear drunk or otherwise intoxicated, and they may slur their words and struggle to keep their balance. Their mood and sleeping patterns may change radically and they may appear distant.
Rohypnol addiction may manifest itself in changes of behaviour such as loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities and poor academic or work-based performance. They may also exhibit drug seeking behaviours in which they care about little other than getting another ‘fix’.
Signs of withdrawal from Rohypnol, when the person has not taken the drug for a while, include severe headaches, mental confusion, the appearance of being in pain and a tense restlessness. They are likely to be in a state of heightened anxiety, which then dissipates once they have taken the drug.
Those with legitimate prescriptions for Rohypnol may get through the amount they have been given more quickly than expected. This is because over time a tolerance to the drug builds up, meaning that they need more and more to get the same effects. Eventually, the actual effects of the drug on the individual may be minimal, and they simply continue to take it to avoid the inevitable withdrawal symptoms.
As with any drug that creates a physical dependency within the user, great care needs to be taken when treating the addiction and ceasing use of Rohypnol. It is seldom recommended for someone with a Rohypnol addiction to suddenly go ‘cold turkey’ of their own accord and without proper medical supervision.
Because Benzodiazepines like Rohypnol enhance the effects of the GABA neurotransmitter in the brain, over time the body automatically reduces production of this chemical to compensate and restore balance. GABA is the body’s natural calming remedy which helps to regulate brain activity and sleep.
As the body has become dependent on the Rohypnol entering it externally, when use of the drug is ceased the individual will have insufficient levels of GABA. This leads to a substantial increase in unregulated brain activity, resulting in anxiety, nervous excitement, insomnia, depression, mood swings and a variety of other unpleasant side effects. Without professional help therefore withdrawal can be difficult and even dangerous, with a strong possibility of relapse.
Because of the severity of the withdrawal symptoms, particularly in especially long-term and heavy users, it often advisable for the individual to be treated as an in-patient in a rehabilitation centre. Staff with specialised knowledge can plan a co-ordinated detox to ensure the patient’s safety and minimise the level of discomfort experienced. In many cases it is necessary to taper off usage of the drug gradually rather than ceasing use immediately. Rehabilitation professionals may also be able to administer medications to help lessen the severity of specific withdrawal effects.
The physical withdrawal symptoms of Rohypnol can last for weeks or even months, depending on the length and severity of the addiction. The drug also creates a powerful psychological craving which will also need to be treated.
In addition to detoxing and receiving medical help to recover from the addiction, the patient will often be given therapy to help them to adjust to life without the drug, and help them to avoid a future relapse. Treatments such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can be particularly effective, as they touch on the underlying reasons for the drug-seeking behaviour, while putting an emphasis on the creation of new healthy replacement behaviours.
The patient may also take part in support groups with others who have similar addictions. This can be an essential part of recovery and relapse prevention as it provides the individual with avenues for emotional support and understanding.
Recovery can be a slow process that takes months, and it may require continuing support in the form of counselling and other monitoring activities even once the main body of treatment is finished.
In the case of recreational users who have become hooked on Rohypnol it is likely that there are other drug addictions which need to be dealt with at the same time, or in succession. Sometimes Rohypnol abuse may be just one part of a larger drug problem, and a comprehensive and thorough rehabilitation plan is needed to ensure the future health of the individual and help them to become substance-free.