What is meant by the “date rape” drug?

We’ve all heard different versions of the same story: Girl goes out to a bar, girl accepts a drink, girl feels dizzy, girl wakes up the next day in someone else’s bed, not remembering anything. Another victim of a notorious “date-rape” drug!

We are not talking about one single substance. Date-rape drugs are used by sexual predators to sedate their victims and facilitate rape, usually by slipping the tablets into alcoholic beverages. Perhaps the most famous of this group of drugs is flunitrazepam, marketed in some countries under the trade name Rohypnol, but better known on the street as “roofies.”

Rohypnol is illegal in the Unites States and in Canada, but is prescribed in some countries for insomnia that is unresponsive to other drugs, or for anesthesia before surgery. As the suffix “–azepam” indicates, flunitrazepam is part of the benzodiazepine family, a group of psychoactive drugs of which the most widely known is diazepam, or Valium. Benzodiazepines enhance the effect of the neurotransmitter (a chemical produced by brain cells to communicate with each other) gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which results in sedative, hypnotic (sleep-inducing), anxiolytic (anti-anxiety), muscle-relaxing and amnesic effects.

Different benzodiazepines have different strengths. Whereas Valium is mild enough to treat anxiety and insomnia, Rohypnol is 7 to 10 times more potent, with a rapid onset of action of 15 to 20 minutes, and a 4 to 6 hour duration. Moreover, Rohypnol causes significant anterograde amnesia, which means that the person taking the drug loses partial or complete ability to recall events that happened after they take the drug. This amnesic property can be of use in minor surgeries where loss of memory can be beneficial because the patient would be less likely to remember the trauma or unpleasant procedure. Unfortunately, this can also be abused by people who take it as a recreational drug, or even worse, by criminals to incapacitate their victims.

Efforts have been made to deter perpetrators from using Rohypnol. Flunitrazepam is normally colorless and tasteless but the Swiss-based pharmaceutical company Roche, the worldwide manufacturer of the drug, has now added a dye to the drug which makes it turn bright blue when the tablet is dissolved in a liquid. However, sexual assailants can add the tablet to blue-colored drinks to make it invisible. It’s important to note that, although Rohypnol has been heavily hyped by the media, it is actually not the most commonly used drug to lace a drink. GHB, or gamma-hydroxybutyrate, a metabolite of GABA, is also used for this effect.

In any case, however, the number one reason that women find themselves in compromising situations after a night out is by far just plain alcohol and too much of it. Don’t drink more than you can handle, don’t take drinks from strangers, and if you’re not sure that a drink hasn’t been tampered with, don’t put it near your mouth.

 

Melody Ko

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