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The 'roofie' excuse

Ann Bradley wonders whether the panic about the 'date rape drug' Rohypnol has taken off because it provides the perfect get-out for embarrassing behaviour

A 20-year old woman accepts a drink from a man she does not know at the Bar Rumba nightclub in central London. Soon after drinking it she feels dizzy and disorientated and goes into the street. The woman later tells police she believes that she was followed outside, where a man - or possibly men - had sex with her. Tests reveal that she did not have an excessive amount of alcohol in her bloodstream. She has no explanation of how she lost control. But the newspapers which reported her case earlier this year did; they claimed that she must have been a victim of Rohypnol, better known as the 'date rape drug'.

The tranquilliser Rohypnol (generically known as flunitrazepam but known on the street as 'roofie') has, journalists claim, been implicated in more than 500 such assaults in America. Now it is over here. In May this year the Home Office rushed through special regulations to tighten controls on the 'date rape drug'. Unauthorised possession of Rohypnol is now a criminal offence carrying a maximum penalty of two years in prison plus an unlimited fine, and pharmacies and warehouses are required to store the drug securely. A new charity, the Roofie Foundation, has been established to 'raise awareness and fund a helpline'. The launch press release warned: 'If you are a woman living anywhere in Britain you should be afraid...very afraid.'

But afraid of what? Rohypnol is basically one of the group of hypnotic benzodiazepine tranquillisers - the same drug family as Temazepam and Mogadon. The drugs are legitimately used to treat insomnia but there is a long tradition of their abuse - particularly by spaced-out kids on inner city estates with a need to get off their faces, cheaply. Abuse of 'bennies' is nothing new. What is new is the suggestion that they are being used by sexually predatory men to render women incapable of resisting their advances.

Rohypnol usually comes in the form of an easily dissolved tablet. When taken with alcohol the effect of the drug is enhanced so that within 15 to 30 minutes the 'roofie victim' slips into a near-unconscious state - half-aware of what is happening around them but with little normal control over their body. Watching somebody high on Rohypnol is like watching somebody who is very, very drunk. When the drug wears off there is often memory loss which can last for days or even weeks.

In theory, Rohypnol is detectable in the bloodstream for 36 hours and in urine for 72 hours - only when the dose is sufficiently large. But, argue those who are worried about the drug's date-rape potential, the alcohol-enhancing effect of the drug means that a small amount of Rohypnol dropped in a glass of wine could deliver disproportionately devastating results.

There is little doubt that Rohypnol could be used by unscrupulous blokes who rate a chemical cosh more effective than a chat-up line. But there is absolutely no evidence that it has or is being used in this way in the UK. Even as the Home Office announced its intention to tighten the regulations on possession of Rohypnol, it had to admit that '[d]espite concerns about the wide use of flunitrazepam in rape cases there is very little solid evidence'. For 'very little' read none: last year the government's Forensic Science Service did not find the drug during tests related to 18 rape cases in which its use had been suspected. And the Forensic Science Service looks likely to get a similar result for 1998; on 28 September the Home Office told me that Rohypnol has not been implicated in a single rape case this year. Yet the restrictions will stay in place because, as the Home Office confirms, 'public concern about the drug remains high'.

'Roofie rape' stories continue to trickle into the press. An Express exclusive exposed tales of thefts from the drug's manufacturer, Roche Products. Anecdotes and case histories litter the women's pages of popular papers. Typically they present the following scenario. Woman goes out for a drink with a man she knows vaguely or not at all. Man buys woman drinks. Woman wakes up following morning (frequently in her own bed) with hazy recollection of previous evening, which includes dim memory that she had sex. Woman claims this is entirely out of character and that she must have been drugged. He must have slipped her a roofie.

(One student who told her story in the London Evening Standard admitted that the gawky teenager she had been seen romping with was too much of an innocent nerd to have drugged her. The conclusion which she and her students' union welfare officer reached was that both of them must have been roofied by person or persons unknown.)

Designer drugs may well have taken over from vodka as the near-undetectable means of rendering a woman willing, if not particularly able. It is fair enough for the Home Office to qualify its lack of evidence of roofie rape by reminding us that 'this doesn't mean that it hasn't been used; women are reluctant to come forward in rape cases and often sex crimes aren't reported until after traces of the drug would have passed from the body'.

But even if roofies were being slipped into lagers the length and breadth of Britain, what would be the point of starting a panic about a demon drug? Surely it would be far more sensible to encourage women simply to 'wise up' as we have always had to do. Probably any guy who buys you a drink in a nightclub has intentions which go beyond quenching your thirst. It was ever thus.

And is it too cynical to suggest that, while agony aunts wring their hands about the odourless, tasteless threat to every woman's integrity, roofies can actually offer women the ultimate excuse? Each generation finds its own excuse for getting 'out of control'. Blaming a roofie seems to be the 1998 designer version of 'he must have spiked my drink'. And it is the almost-undetectable character of the drug which makes it such a perfect get-out.

Until now, that barely awake stomach-crunching realisation - 'I can't believe I did that with him!' - had to be faced. So he took unfair advantage of you after the second bottle of red. But it was still your fault for drinking it. How will you ever face your friends again? Now it's different. You have an excuse. 'He must have put something in my drink' has become acceptable (and believable) for the first time since you were 14. It is notable how, in some firsthand accounts of roofie rapes, the woman says what a relief it was when she first heard of the existence of the drug that could offer a reasonable explanation for her embarrassing behaviour.

It is no coincidence that the 'it must have been a roofie' excuse first developed in America, where alcohol consumption is increasingly stigmatised, especially among young people. A recent ABC news item featured the growing number of 'dry' fraternities and sororities on US campuses, with earnest cheer- leader types condemning the evils of drunkenness. A related item on the health and social risks of student 'binge' drinking defined a binge as 'consuming four or more units of alcohol in one evening'.

It was only a matter of time before the new puritanical restrictions on sexual activity on campus, which led to codes of conduct in the bedroom, developed into codes of conduct in the bar. When a drunken fuck is seen as a descent into depravity, it is hardly surprising that in the sober, hungover light of day people try to find a publicly acceptable excuse for naked lust. And when the 'I was too drunk to know what I was doing' excuse is no longer an acceptable explanation - even to your mates - you might even convince yourself, as well as them, that you were slipped a chemical cosh.

Beware of men bearing champagne

Lynda, a 41-year old solicitor - described as a 'victim of drug rape' - told the Express (3 September 1998) how she had a couple of dates with a man she met through a lonely hearts column. After making it clear that she was interested only in friendship she agreed to meet him in a wine bar where he bought her champagne.

'After two sips everything became confused and I don't remember anything until I woke up the next morning in my own bed. I felt extremely ill and knew that I had had sex with somebody. I presumed it was with him. I didn't realise what had happened until I met a client who was another victim. She told me what had happened to her and then I realised that it was more than likely what had happened to me too.'

Alternative possible scenario: Lynda isn't used to drinking champagne, got drunk, took a man home to bed and regretted it.

Reproduced from LM issue 115, November 1998

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