The Straight Dope on Rohypnol

by Robert G. Weber, Jr.

This article was written back during the 1990s, but still has a message for those dealing with the hysteria over "date rape drugs."

Well, it looks like the evil geniuses at Hofmann-La Roche who try to unleash drug menaces on the American People have been foiled again. Igor and company working down in the dungeon laboratory came up with a horrifying drug called Rohypnol which was a threat to the well being of every American and the virtue of the female side of the population. Fortunately, our wise shepherd-guardians in the government were on the ball and exposed and crushed the evil plot (or so the public has been led to believe.). Congress hurried through a bill to criminalize the possession of Rohypnol and to outlaw its use to knock somebody out in the commission of a felony with only one dissenting vote. (More on that later.) President Clinton rushed to sign it. Truly, Rohypnol is the latest Great Satan of the War on Drugs.

Actually, Rohypnol TM is quite a useful drug. Known more technically as flunitrazepam, it is a close cousin to diazepam, or Valium TM, also a Hofmann-La Roche product. It is sold in over 65 countries and is used for much the same purposes as Valium TM: as a minor tranquilizer, a muscle relaxant and antispasmodic, as a pretreatment for surgery (it lowers blood pressure, thus reducing bleeding during surgery), and as a sleep aid. It is several times as potent as diazepam (potency is always a bad thing in Drug War Theology, witness the scares over high potency marijuana and manipulated nicotine levels in cigarettes.) Since its toxicity is not proportionately increased, this means that its index of safety, or the toxic dose divided by the therapeutic dose is much greater than diazepam, which is in turn much greater than drugs like the barbiturates.

One of the unfortunate effects of the hypnotics, which include Rohypnol, Valium, the barbiturates, chloral hydrate, and others, is that they combine synergistically with alcohol to multiply their effects, which can catch a naive user unaware. The Mickey Finn, a stock item of detective fiction for the last hundred years, was chloral hydrate slipped into a persons alcoholic drink. Some individuals have deliberately combined hypnotics and alcohol as part of their drug use, notably the poet/painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who combined chloral hydrate and alcohol, and the actor Bela Lugosi, who combined alcohol and paraldehyde (NOT formaldehyde, it and paraldehyde are two completely different chemicals.) The combined effects of hypnotics and alcohol produce enhanced intoxication in small doses and with larger doses can cause loss of consciousness with a degree of amnesia. (Lugosi and Rossetti probably used the amnesiac effects to hide the pain of their personal lives.) In even larger doses it can depress the central nervous system enough to cause death. Actresses Mary Ure and Billie Carleton inadvertently killed themselves in this way. The famous case of Karen Ann Quinlan was a similar happenstance.

So Rohypnol is a safer form of Valium which is safer than barbiturates--so why was it outlawed? Unavailable in this country because of the usual FDA footdragging with approving new drugs, it was used in a few sensational cases of date rape. (As I mentioned, any of the other hypnotics could have been used as well.) The Rohypnol scare has the classic pathology of a drug scare: The triangle of several lurid and hysterical stories in the press, alarmist warnings from law enforcement, and grandstanding by politicians to show they are tough on drugs. Politicians as diverse as Tom Hayden, Orrin Hatch, Dianne Feinstein, and my favorite nutzo drug warrior, New York Republican Congressman Gerald Solomon, all jumped on the Rohypnol bandwagon. Solomon, fresh from trashing the Tenth Amendment with his bill mandating 48 hour insurance coverage for maternity, delivered an uppercut to the Tenth with another bill outlawing the use of a drug in the commitment of a felony. For the first time, and with no constitutional authority, slipping someone a Mickey Finn is now a federal offense, along with such other newly created federal offenses as scrawling graffiti on the side of a church. ("Make a federal offense out of it," meaning to react all out of proportion to a situation, is a phrase you never hear anymore: today, everything is a federal offense. Come to think of it, you never hear the phrase "it's a free country," anymore, either.) There is now a three year federal sentence for mere possession of Rohypnol and a twenty year sentence for its use in a felony. The extreme punishment for its use has the interesting effect of proportionately lowering the penalty for use of a firearm or other deadly weapon in a felony instead.

The swift passage of the anti-Rohypnol bill is another illustration that the problem with government is not, as the populists would have it, that government is unresponsive. It is hyper-responsive. The problem with government is not that it lacks reflexes, it lacks brains. Where were the expert witnesses? Where was the cool deliberation? Where was the Constitution? Nowhere to be seen. To the extent that this safer drug is for all intents and purposes condemned in perpetuity, and to the extent that more hazardous drugs will be used instead, with a certain number of inevitable deaths, Congress, Clinton, and the FDA will be indirectly responsible for several hundred deaths each year, at least.

As I mentioned, one and only one Representative voted against the Rohypnol bill, and for this I present her, with a certain sense of irony, the Defender of the Constitution Award. That Representative is L.A. Democrat Maxine Waters, who denounced the bill as a cynical election year ploy. Of two major attacks on the Tenth Amendment this year, namely the Medical Insurance Reform bill and the Rohypnol bill, the only person in either party to vote against either one was none other than Ms. Waters. Not that I claim that Ms. Waters is a principled constitutionalist, any more than anyone else of either party in Washington, but these days one has to take respect for the Constitution anywhere one can find it.