Possession of Rohypnol

By , Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

Rohypnol -- the "date rape drug" featured in horrific news reports starting in the late 1980s. People at parties or out for drinks at bars later found themselves in a stranger's home, often naked, and with no memory of how they had gotten there or what had happened to them. Many such incidents were crimes abetted by the use of Rohypnol, the so-called "date rape" drug. Federal and state governments responded by making possession and distribution of Rohypnol a crime.

This article discusses the crime of possession of Rohypnol in general. For information about state laws dealing with drug possession, see Drug Possession Laws and Drug Charges.

What Is Rohypnol?

Rohypnol is one of several trade names for flunitrazepam, a pharmaceutical drug prescribed as a treatment for severe insomnia. Flunitrazepam is a potent sedative and muscle relaxant. The drug can induce amnesia, by blocking a person's ability to form any memory of events occurring while the person has the drug in his or her system. As little as one milligram of the drug will cause these effects, which typically last 8 to 12 hours after ingestion.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved flunitrazepam for prescription use in this country, although it is available in Europe and Mexico.

Recreational Use

As a powerful relaxant, Rohypnol has been a popular street drug referred to in slang as "roofies." A person who has ingested it will usually feel its effects within about 20 minutes, and will appear drunk. However, its sedative effect can be extremely dangerous when mixed with alcohol or other substances, and is particularly hazardous to use when driving.

The "Date Rape Drug"

The sedative and amnesiac effects of Rohypnol led to a far more pernicious use: enabling sexual assaults. Assailants surreptitiously dose victims with the drug (by dropping it into the victim's drink, for example) to induce semi-conscious or unconscious states and to suppress the victim's memory of what occurred while under the drug's influence.

Unfortunately, the drug can be detected in the body only within 60 hours after ingestion. And the amnesia that Rohypnol induces may delay a victim's reporting of a rape. As a result, there is little solid information about how frequently Rohypnol is a factor in rape.

Possession of Rohypnol Is a Crime

The Federal Controlled Substances Act makes possession of any amount of the drug a crime carrying a significant potential prison sentence and fine. (21 U.S.C. § 844.) Possession with the intent to sell or otherwise distribute the drug carries a more severe potential penalty.

Simple Possession

Possession of Rohypnol for personal use (as opposed to possession to distribute) is illegal under federal law, as noted above, and also under the laws of each state. Drug possession laws differ from state to state, although many states treat possession of Rohypnol as a particularly dangerous drug because of its association with rape.

Possession With Intent to Distribute

Where the government can prove that the person in possession of the Rohypnol intended to distribute or sell it to others, the charged crime carries a significantly greater penalty. The term "distribute" is defined broadly by federal law and can be read to include giving the drug to just one other person. (21 U.S.C. § 802.)

Where the distribution of the drug leads to serious bodily injury or death of another, the penalty is increased still further. The penalty enhancement explicitly applies where another person dies or is seriously physically injured from using the Rohypnol that the defendant distributed or sold.

How Is Possession of Rohypnol Punished?

The penalty for possession depends in large part on whether the defendant is convicted of simple possession or possession with intent to distribute.

Simple Possession

Under federal law, a person convicted of simple possession of Rohypnol faces a prison term of not more than three years, a fine of not less than $5,000, or both. (21 U.S.C. § 844.) Each state has its own penalties for drug possession and the penalties differ from state to state.

Possession With Intent to Distribute

Under federal law, a person convicted of possession of Rohypnol with intent to distribute it faces a sentence of not less than 10 years and up to life in prison, a fine up to $4,000,000, or both. (21 U.S.C. § 960.) The prison term is increased to not less than 20 years and up to a life sentence where the crime resulted in death or serious bodily injury to another person.

See a Lawyer

Any illegal drug possession charge is a serious matter and anyone facing the heightened penalties for possession of Rohypnol should see a lawyer immediately. If you have been charged with possession of Rohypnol or any other criminal offense, consult with an attorney experienced in criminal defense law in your area.

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