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'Date rape drug' can be dropped in your drink

A tranquilliser 10 times stronger than Valium is being used on the London social scene to facilitate date rape. The same drug is available here on prescription. Cassandra Jardine reports

Sipping on a glass of red wine to calm her nerves, Rachel, a woman in her early thirties, says she is not a big drinker. ``I can get extremely merry, but I've never been drunk to the point of forgetting.''

Rachel's use of alcohol is important because one evening in July, she and her friend, Luisa, apparently became so inebriated after just a couple of drinks that they went back to a flat with two strange men for an orgy. ``I just don't behave like that, I'm a mother with two sons to look after,'' says Rachel.

The only explanation the women can find for what happened is that the men slipped something into their drinks. It was, they and the police suggest, Rohypnol a tranquilliser 10 times stronger than Valium which has become known in America as `the data rape drug'. Over the past five years, it has been used on campuses to turn unwilling women into pliable zombies.

Roofies, as these small purple pills are known on the street, become colourless and odourless when dissolved in alcohol. They last for around 12 hours, induce a trance-like state where inhibitions are lost, and leave the taker with little or no memory of what occurred during that time.

A man who has skipped a roofie into a woman's drink can leave a bar supporting someone who looks drunk but happy, rather than obviously drugged. Afterwards, Rohypnol leaves the blood stream after 36 hours and is not detectable in urine after 72 hours a period when the victim is likely to feel too confused to take action.

In America, only a handful of cases have resulted in prosecution. In one instance, a rapist was caught because he bragged about using the drug; in another, 26 women were videoed having sex which, they say, they never agreed to and couldn't remember. After a publicity campaign, some women have now successfully proved that they were drugged, by going to the Police early enough.

These Nineties Mickey Finns are in circulation in Britain. Doctors prescribe the Hoffman-La Roche drugs which cost around £50 for 30 for back pain or insomnia. Recently, they have been found on the black market, particularly in Scotland, where they are used as a cheap heroin substitute.

Neither Rachel nor Luisa (their names have been changed) knew anything about Rohypnol last July. So, following their traumatic night with three strange men, they were initially too bewildered to think of going to the police or to a hospital for tests. However, looking back, their behaviour was so out of character that they, and the police, believe that this drug or something similar must have been the cause.

On the evening in question, Rachel was in a celebratory mood. ``My sons had gone to stay with their father. My divorce was over. I had just signed up to start a three-year nursing course and I was on tip-top form.''

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Luisa's long-term boyfriend Simon was away on a business trip, and she was looking forward to a rare night out with a girlfriend. As usual, she wore a wedding ring to signal her unavailability. ``I am not in the habit of picking up men,'' she says.

The two women set out at 9.30pm for Covent Garden. They stopped at a pub for a beer, but didn't drink it because it was flat. Instead, they went on to a restaurant where they had something to eat and one glass of wine each. By then, it was closing time and, not wanting to end the evening, they went into the bar opposite, which was offering free admittance to women that night. ``I like listening to loud music occasionally,'' says Luisa, a South American interior designer.

``We sat at a table and had one tequila shot each,'' Rachel recalls. ``Then I went to the bar to order two more. I vaguely noticed two men standing one on either side of me, but I paid and went to the lavatory. When I came back to fetch the drinks, they were four. I assumed the men had bought us a drink, thanked them, and thought nothing of it.''

She took the drinks back to Luisa who hadn't seen let alone spoken to the men. They knocked back the first tequila shot, and then the second.

People imbibing drinks spiked with Rohypnol usually have around 15 minutes when they are aware that something is wrong. Rachel and Luisa had none, perhaps because they gulped down their shots so quickly. ``I can remember taking one step back and then nothing. I can remember nothing more,'' says Rachel.``When I woke up, I was aware of being in a bedroom with the two men from the bar and a third one. One was on top of Luisa on the bed, the other was behind me. I remember feeling uncomfortable with what was going on, but I couldn't find my voice to protest and I didn't have the strength to push the man off. Then I blacked out again.''

Luisa also briefly regained consciousness. She registered the feeling of being in a ``horror movie,'' tried to push one of the men off her and found that her arms wouldn't function.The next thing they knew, it was early morning. Rachel found herself trying to put on her underwear while one of the men was still doing something to Luisa on the bed. ``I was aware of a terrible thirst and a need to go to the loo, but I couldn't even work out how to turn the taps,'' she says.

They staggered out into the street of West London to find their money had been stolen. Eventually, they found a taxi: the driver took them to Luisa's flat while making ribald jokes about their state. Rachel dozed for an hour before going to work; Luisa fell into a sleep that lasted all day. ``It wasn't like a hangover,'' she says, ``I had a small pain at the back of my head and a chemical taste in my mouth.''

That sleep revived Luisa who, by Friday was telling Rachel they should report the incident, but Rachel was still in a dream. only at the weekend were they clear-headed enough to take action. The Rape Crisis Centre was on answer machine and the police told them to ``pop in'' when they felt like it, but they were too upset to do so.

``I have never understood before why women don't report rape. But I felt that somehow we were responsible, even though rationally I knew we weren't,'' says Rachel. ``Eventually, we went to the hospital to have tests, but it was too late by then for the drug to be detected.''

There is no doubt that the men had sex with them because Luisa soon felt sick and knew she was pregnant. An abortion was arranged and the foetus provided a DNA sample with which to incriminate one of the men.

Acting as amateur detectives, the two women and Luisa's boyfriend retraced their steps to the house where they had been taken that night and saw one of them. They then called the police, who later arrested them. But the men never denied that they had had sex with the women. Luisa and Rachel were, they claimed, willing partners.

The women had been worried about disbelief when they went to the police, but they were fortunate to find themselves dealing with DC Phil Ashton, who had recently been on a course where Rohypnol was mentioned. He took their charges seriously, and felt they had a case.

Sceptics, they know, will think that this is just the latest excuse for second thoughts after a night of passion that went wrong. But Rachel says: ``If we'd just had a night of terrific fun with some men we'd picked up, we wouldn't be going to the police. It would endanger our relationships.''

Their case has been presented to the Crown Prosecution Service three times; each time it has been rejected for lack of evidence. Currently, it is in suspension; the police are hoping that the taxi driver who took them to the flat with the two men, one dark, one fair, will come forward. Luisa, with her long straight black hair and Latin features, Rachel, slightly shorter with a mane of dark curls, might well be memorable.

Not even to have the satisfaction of a court case has been hard for the two women whose lives were wrecked by that night. On the evening I meet Rachel, she is having difficulty coping with her elder child, ``I just don't have the emotional strength,'' she says, ``and it is hard beginning my course, because I can't get that night out of my mind.''

The man she had been seeing for some months dumped her when he heard the story. ``He just couldn't cope,'' she says. ``And I find it hard going out. On public transport, I find myself sweating with anxiety. I know men aren't evil I love my brothers and my sons but how do you know who is safe?''

Rachel is still waiting to hear about her HIV status; Luisa learnt this week that she is HIV negative. While she was waiting to hear, she was so shaken she had to return to her mother in South America for solace. To begin with, she says, ``I couldn't walk down the road to get milk. I have panic attacks and nightmares about being held down and having my mouth stuffed with plastic bags.''

Rachel adds: ``I know that rape has noting to do with sex; it's about control.'' But they have both found that their sexual feelings are now complicated by that awful night.

As they rebuild their lives, they feel the only good that can come out of their trauma is to warn other women.

``At least, if others know about these drugs, they could think twice about accepting a drink,'' says Rachel. ``If they begin to feel unexpectedly wasted, they could seek help. And if they are raped, they will know it is imperative to go to the police immediately.''




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