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Knocked Out Loaded

Pablo Picasso, Weeping Woman, 1937

Everyone knows Rohypnol,invented as a sleep aid, can be used as a date-rape drug, but few know just how much damage roofies can cause

I’m going to share a truly amazing story with you, but I must confess something first: None of the parties involved want to deal with the events I am about to describe any longer, and we need to respect their wishes. What I request is that you consider the facts of the story without wasting the time of those involved.

For what I am going to share with you are some occurrences that led to and then emerged from a period of thirteen mysterious minutes during which no one really knows what happened. Dozens of people have spent dozens of months trying to figure it out. Thousands of dollars have been shelled out, too, and untold amounts of stress. Lives have been derailed, careers have suffered, relationships been strained or lost. Violations took place, and crimes. Blood was shed. Yet what happened during those thirteen minutes remains a mystery — one that nearly destroyed the lives of some very nice people.This essay appears in TNI Magazine Vol. 14, “Time.” Subscribe for $2 here 

At the heart of this story sits time: Who controls it, who records it, who mourns it, who allocates its usage. And how and why this happens, and, of course, when. One particular substance upends all our presumptions about the control of time, but we think we know where they land again. Yet who is in control of what and for how long is not so easy to discern.

I will tell you this story, but you must promise not to take up any more of the time of those involved.

But first, a question: How much do you know about Rohypnol?

***

Early one new year — doesn’t matter which, exactly, since we’re going for the “Once upon a time” sense — a quiet and charming and alarmingly tall man, let’s call him Frank, went to an informal dinner party hosted by an ex-girlfriend, a sweet and kindly teacher, a bit of an artistic soul. We’ll refer to her as Zelda. The two had dated for close to a decade about a decade ago — it doesn’t matter exactly how long or when. The point is that they used to date, and then they stopped, and now they’re friends, but it was all such a long time ago that all you need to know is that they still like each other.

After a couple glasses of wine, the group of several at the party agreed to go out to karaoke at a tacky disreputable bar. If I were to tell you details about this bar, you would accuse me of inventing them, so let’s pretend it was called Gone Fishin’!. The interior of Gone Fishin’! (the exclamation point is part of the name) was decked out in bait and tackle-related geegaws, including a talking wall-mounted trout and various doctored photographs of white men in obtrusive vests with giant walleyes, and all the specialty drinks had names like Wonderbread Standard and Worm on a Hook, and they were supposed to be cute references to picking people up, but they weren’t. I’m setting a scene here (albeit a fake one), and what I want to convey is that the bar was maybe going for hipster in a slightly-more-authentic-than-TGIFriday’s way but nothing about it worked. So people just went there to sing pop songs to each other.

And order cheap drinks. Zelda and her friends and Frank had a few. Frank had never done karaoke before, so he may have had more cocktails than he usually does. Songs were sung, more drinks were consumed. New friends! Rounds were purchased. More songs. One of Zelda’s friends had driven them all there and wasn’t drinking. When someone at the bar sent her and Zelda a couple drinks, the teetotaler passed her gift along to Frank.

Karaoke became aggressive and weird. It was that kind of place, Gone Fishin’!. Stages were stormed, maybe a wall-mounted trout was given a solo, the house got a round, that sort of thing. Some of the new friends began drifting away, other new ones replaced them. Two suspicious dudes, on their way out of the bar, jerked a thumb toward Zelda and Frank and made a snide comment about “Roofie and Friend.”

Their pals agreed later that the two were pretty trashed.

***

Roofies — a street name for the drug flunitrazepam, sold under the brand name Rohypnol — have never been approved for sale in the U.S. A quick glance through some of the other popular street names will give a clue as to why: roaches, mind erasers, ropies, wolfies, forget pills, and the date-rape drug are among the most menacing endearments for the stuff.

The drug was developed in the 1970s by Hoffman LaRoche and began appearing stateside in the 1980s, but the FDA never approved it, not even as a sleep aid, the intention for which it was originally developed. Elsewhere, it’s sold as that or as a hypnotic, which — I don’t even know what to say about living in a country like Sweden, where you could be prescribed a hypnotic. It’s also used to treat hospital patients in preparation for surgery. Here in the U.S., the Safe Streets and Communities Act of 2012 reclassified it a Schedule I drug — one with no medical value whatsoever, like cocaine and heroin.

The side effects of flunitrazepam are what make it such a troubling concoction. In addition to slowing psychomotor performance (e.g., the ability to run away if threatened) and causing whatever combination of relaxation, sedation, and suggestibility, which brings about the designation hypnotic in Europe, the drug also causes memory loss. A standard dosage — one or two milligrams — can last for eight to 12 hours, with hangover effects extending from several days to over a week. It’s also highly addictive. And it can kill you. Although some merely vomit.

Users self-administer roofies as a sleep aid, to enhance the effects of alcohol, or to mitigate depression caused by withdrawal from other drugs. (I’m told it’s a great rush.) Yet flunitrazepam isn’t always self-administered, which is where the mythology that surrounds the stuff is born. It’s been known to have been given to people, unwittingly if not against their will. This is because most who have ingested a standard dosage will exhibit within fifteen minutes a troubling combination of physical docility and compliant suggestibility.

It’s almost as if it were dreamed up by a bunch of deeply unethical bros after a couple rounds of beers over superhero comics had resulted in a too-oft repeated string of complaints about the feminists ruining all the fun. Cast as a middle-class nightmare in pill form, flunitrazepam in the popular imagination removes only free will from the party, and from only one unlucky partygoer: mythological threat to the affluent, self-actualized woman — although one that can be countered with more products. A lipstick that changes color in the presence of the drug. Or slight behavior modification. Never leaving your drink unattended. Always finishing it quickly.

The accepted truth about flunitrazepam is that its primary stateside use is as a rape facilitator. As such, the drug bears no small amount of responsibility for restricting women’s freedom of movement in a so-called rape culture. Unfortunately, a different truth emerges when tox screens are collected from those who suspect they have been dosed: The unintended ingestion of flunitrazepam is widely overreported. (Some studies indicate that exactly zero of all reported roofie dosings have been verified, while others show slightly more correlation between the fears and the facts.)

If the prevalence of flunitrazepam were merely a myth we upheld to excuse poor decision-making and excessive alcohol consumption, the harm of believing in it would still be significant. Rape happens — to folks of all genders — because masculine aggression is socially acceptable, if not rewarded, and the straw men we put in place to distract from this truth are a drain on resources. And a waste of time.

But the myth of the date-rape drug looms larger than that, obscuring an even more potentially damaging fact: We don’t actually know what effects the drug can have on users.

***

Back at Gone Fishin’!, Zelda was in trouble. Rambunctious, belligerent, I don’t know what-all else. Her friends decided to drive her home. Frank too: He was sick. He’s a pretty mellow guy, and even rip-roaring drunk you’d be hard-pressed to consider him anything more than mild-mannered. He vomited a few times on the way home, which was unusual, and the group of friends, perhaps more concerned about sequestering Zelda quickly than securing Frank in his own home, suggested he crash on her couch. Zelda had a futon in the same room as her bed but on the opposite wall. Frank had slept there before. No one thought anything of the arrangements. The two had dated for so long, and so long ago, that it didn’t occur to anyone to be concerned.

Their friends trundled them into the apartment, thinking it best. The two were still pretty crazed. Frank was sick and acting strangely, and Zelda was having these outbursts that didn’t make any sense. When they got into the kitchen she lunged, and stumbled, in some bizarre angry fit. She sent a bunch of kitchen stuff crashing to the floor. Her friends tried to clean everything up, sort of, but basically just sent the two off to bed as soon as possible because the urgent need seemed to be that they sleep it off. The pals then left.

Curled on his side facing the back of the futon, Frank woke up about thirteen minutes later with stabbing pain in his back and a rustling behind him. He turned, slowly, moving his arm toward the pain. Then his arm hurt too.

Zelda was leaning over him with a knife. She had time to jam it into his side one more time before he asked, incredulous, “Why are you stabbing me?”

***

Zelda didn’t really — and still doesn’t — know the answer to that question. Later, Frank would consider a variety of possibilities, most of which seem ridiculous to anyone who knows him: Had he “tried” something? No. He just hadn’t. Snored, maybe? Done a really bad rendition of “Rock the Casbah” earlier that night? These were slightly more plausible given his docile personality and newness to karaoke, but they didn’t offer an explanation.

I won’t be able to explain it either. No one can. The few studies that have been done on flunitrazepam indicate that it causes a sudden violent psychotic break in a certain percentage of its users. (A study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information says six percent, while less scientific reports estimate as high as 10.) Many are prone to hostility while on it, although conclusive studies have been conducted only on young male recreational users, many of whom exhibited violent behavior prior to the study. Gang and mob initiates are said to be given the stuff when they’re asked to do their first killings, marking another rumored use for the drug as fostering the suggestibility to commit violence, not merely remain vulnerable to it. Yet conclusive studies on the drug’s effect on a wide range of users haven’t been conducted. Neither have they been called for by media that claim to already know what the daterape drug does.This essay appears in TNI Magazine Vol. 14, “Time.” Subscribe for $2 here 

It’s not unusual that a drug has a bizarre and extremely damaging side effect, like stabbing a kind person in his sleep. Drugs have side effects. Some of them are super weird. The drug to cure Restless Leg Syndrome, for example, can contribute to a gambling addiction.

What baffles is that no one I’ve spoken to — as a professor in a college where experimental drug use runs rampant, as I travel the country speaking to young women, their teachers, and rape-crisis counseling staff members, as I consult other journalists who write on sexual assault — no one I have spoken to has heard of a link between flunitrazepam and the commission of violence.

This is where the dangers of the myth become clear. It is possible that we do not know what flunitrazepam does because we think we already know what it does. And while there might be folks who are better informed on the subject than we are, we tend not to value their knowledge base. Flunitrazepam’s criminalization in the U.S. means its distribution is largely limited to the black market. In effect, this relegates its use to the population who may have the most interest in incurring violence, and the least interest in acknowledging any means by which it does so. Under what conditions, besides an already bad roofie-ing scenario gone even worse, would the rest of us have opportunity to question what flunitrazepam really does?

It strikes me, as it’s struck many, many, many of the rape crisis counselors, health workers, and women’s rights advocates I’ve spoken with, that if the date-rape drug were revealed to have a negative side effect for potential date rapists, it would be more than a little explosive. Conclusive studies about the effects of flunitrazepam must be called for, and covered in media. It is a feminist issue. It is also a public health issue.

Nebulous and hard-to-pin-down concepts like “rape culture” rely on a dearth of evidence about sexual assault that neither victims nor perpetrators may be interested in supplying. Vague fears about a culture that victimizes the feminine and glorifies masculine aggression thus predominate, but demand scrutiny. Allowing the so-called date-rape drug to perpetuate gendered social norms under nightmare scenarios not only obscures the truth. By breeding fear and ignorance it may itself be a factor in upholding rape culture.

Which is all to say that what happened during those 13 minutes took several decades to unfold, and obfuscate, and confuse. Hundreds of thousands of people were involved in the conspiracy to keep whatever happened during that time period secret. And while we may never know what went down — in fact, the drug assures that we will not — it is extremely important to investigate why it happened.

Because that was not the end of the story.

***

Zelda put the knife down. “Oh, my God, should I call 911?” Frank remembered her asking. “Yes,” he responded, or something similar. “You’ve just stabbed me five times.” Frank is docile, like I told you. His sense of humor, however, is wicked. Zelda called 911. The ambulance arrived, and they took Frank away while the police arrested Zelda.

Those thirteen minutes, however, continued to perplex. Zelda didn’t remember what happened; in fact, she didn’t remember much of the night. Frank healed over the ensuing days, and weeks, and months, but he was never satisfied with any explanation he could craft. Zelda, he remains sure, would simply never have tried to hurt him.

A detective came to visit Frank in the hospital. He asked, “Were you ever handed a drink that you couldn’t account for?”

Frank had, he remembered. Maybe one or two, actually. It was that kind of night. But given what he knew about flunitrazepam, Frank hadn’t the faintest idea how that could have led to him getting stabbed in the middle of the night by a good friend while he slept. The detective explained.

So the plot thickens. The detective must have seen it before, and often enough that he could spot the effects of flunitrazepam through the somewhat shaky version of another of its unintentional ingestors. Sure, that’s what detectives do and all, but what body of information about roofies do they have that the rest of us don’t?

Time. Decades on the job, some of them. Among folks who are apt to make the most frequent use of the stuff.

Once flunitrazepam was suggested, the pieces fell into place. There was a crime, yes: but both Frank and Zelda had been victims of it. He wasn’t going to file a complaint; he was ready to forgive the entire mess. In his mind, the culpability of all except whoever had spiked their drinks then vanished.

Unfortunately, the government didn’t see it that way. Whether some official somewhere saw a potential for a violent crime conviction or accidently checked the wrong box on some papers, proceedings were launched against Zelda. Through happenstance or sheer luck, depending on whose side you took in the case, no blood samples had been taken, or they had been but had then been lost or discarded. It’s possible that no one at the hospital thought to test for the date-rape drug, since Zelda hadn’t been brought in as the victim of a sexual assault. The hospital staff may not have known that flunitrazepam was also a stab-for-no-reason drug.

It may seem preposterous, but within a few short months, Zelda had come close to killing her friend, had been charged with a violent crime, and had lost her job. She was facing some pretty serious time in prison, too — all for having been the intended victim of a sexual assault. Without evidence that she had been drugged, the case could read as if a jealous girlfriend had attacked a former lover, or some other untrue nonsense. It didn’t look good. Rape culture is complicated. Zelda and Frank’s situation became more preposterous, seemingly daily. Until one day, just like that, the case was dropped. Months upon months upon months spent defending less than a quarter of an hour during which no one will ever know what happened.

It was over.

But it is also sort of not. I want it to be over for Zelda and Frank, to whom I apologize sincerely for sharing their story, however veiled I have presented it. They have been through enough, certainly. But the real effects of flunitrazepam have been hidden for too long, and caused far too much damage. It is time to find out what the stuff really does.

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