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Local dealers and users call them rophies, ropies, roopies, roofies, ruffies, loops, wheels, and circles. Roche, the company that developed the drug, calls it Narcozep, Rohipnol, Roipnol, and Rohypnol, depending on where the one- and two-milligram tablets are sold. Chemists call it flunitrazepam, a sedative similar to Valium that is not approved for consumption in the U.S. but whose use as a recreational drug is on the rise in Miami.
So far street cops remain largely in the dark. "Rohypnol? No, I don't know that one," says a member of South Florida's Multi-Agency Gang Task Force. "Oh, roofies. Sure. I've heard about it. But that's it -- I've heard about it."
Drug-abuse expert Jim Hall, however, is intimately familiar with the pills. The executive director of Up Front, a nonprofit drug-abuse research and referral service, Hall found out about Rohypnol in Miami eighteen months ago, when calls about the new downer began coming in on Up Front's hotline. "The reports were from adolescents, primarily female. They were asking what it was," says Hall, who has dubbed the drug "the Quaalude of the Nineties." Like Valium, Rohypnol is a benzodiazepine, Hall explains, "but unlike that drug, it's a sedative-hypnotic, not a tranquilizer. It's being used in combination with alcohol, which can present severe hazards. And it's not approved pharmaceutically in the United States. In western Europe, where it is approved, we've been hearing about abuse patterns for at least five years."
Flunitrazepam was first marketed by Roche and other pharmaceutical companies in 1976. By 1991, according to the Drugs Available Abroad guide published by Gale Research, the drug was available in two dozen nations, from Australia to El Salvador. Today Roche dominates the world market, selling flunitrazepam in at least seventeen countries.
The substance, a psychosedative/tranquilizer/relaxant/anticonvulsant, is prescribed for insomnia. Up Front's Jim Hall -- who in June presented the news of Rohypnol as part of his report at the semi-annual gathering of the Community Epidemiology Work Group (part of the National Institute on Drug Abuse) -- notes that, like Valium, it can also be employed before surgery, to relax the patient before anesthesia is administered. "It's given to patients before full anesthesia to really bring them down," says Hall. "It helps ease them more effectively into anesthesia."
In Miami, some cocaine users take Rohypnol to ease them through the "crash" phase, according to Hall. (Another source reports seeing this practice eight or ten years ago in Venezuela: "After a big coke party, everybody would take one, then see if they could drive home before it kicked in.") A second user group, says Hall, consists of heroin junkies seeking to heighten that chemical's effects. A third demographic segment cited by Hall: kids. "We're seeing it from the suburbs to the crack alleys. Most drugs of this category Asedative-hypnotics -- can lead to dependency."
One dealer reports that his customers fit into none of the above categories. "They're just regular guys in their late twenties, thirties," says the dealer. "And they love the things. I'm worried about some of them getting hooked."
Capt. Claudia Clusman of the Dade County Schools Police Department is one of the few local cops who have more than a passing familiarity with Rohypnol. "We have become aware of it, through arrests, and we're watching it," she says. "Roofies. It's a drug we're very concerned about because when it's mixed with alcohol, we don't know what side effects might be produced and we have no idea about long-term effects. It's cheap, easy to get ahold of, and we've seen it in cases involving people as young as fourteen. If you don't recognize a problem, you can't deal with it."
Like the Quaaludes of yesteryear, rophies are everywhere -- in Miami. According to law-enforcement officials, drug-abuse specialists, and those who sell the pills on the street, prices for the blister-packed tablets range from three to eight dollars retail, with a small discount for "strips" of ten. "The price depends on who you are," Hall says, "and the current supply." One rophie salesman says his connection sells them by the thousand, at one dollar per tablet. "I get four bucks a pop," he says. "If I went to Fort Lauderdale or Miami Beach, I could get six dollars each."
Harold Dieter is a supervisory investigator for the Drug Enforcement Administration. A twenty-year agency veteran who's been posted in Miami since 1981, Dieter specializes in pharmaceuticals, which are often illicitly prescribed by doctors or diverted from manufacturers and distributors. "There are ongoing investigations I can't delve into," he says to preface a long discussion of Rohypnol. "It was first brought to law enforcement in 1985 by submissions to DEA labs; the quantities [from confiscations] were small -- 46, 499, 10, 6, 2 tablets -- in the southwestern U.S., places like Corpus Christi, Phoenix, Nogales, near the Mexican border. It started here in the Miami area about two years ago, maybe three."
Possession of Rohypnol constitutes a third-degree felony, carrying with it a maximum sentence of five years in prison for a first offense. Within the past couple of years, several seizures of the contraband pill have been made locally. "We had one of about 4000 tablets, another of 6000, and several of about 500 as they were coming into the country," says the DEA's Dieter. "We've seen it in [checked baggage] and hand-carried luggage at airports and also via express mail. Some of the suspects were illegals, some U.S. citizens of South American origins. I recall, from memory, hearing about a wholesale price down there of about $500 for 4000 [12.5 cents per tablet]. With a street value of six or eight bucks here, the markup is tremendous. There's a market for it, and people are making money on this stuff. They must be if they're going to the extent of smuggling it from South American countries. I bet Quaalude abusers are thrilled."
The DEA has confirmed that at least one box of tablets came to Miami directly from Colombia; agents also say pills are being exported from "any Latin American country where Roche has a manufacturing plant," as one official puts it.
"I reported at a federal meeting a couple of weeks ago that Miami was the only city seeing this as a new drug," Jim Hall says. "That enhances speculation of a Colombian connection. They might now be in the process of test-marketing it in Miami. We have been the first entry point for new drugs in the past. We were one of the first to report crack. And now rophies."
If they are in fact the source for Miami's burgeoning supply of Rohypnol, Colombian druglords can't take all the credit for the little white pills with the big kick. New Jersey-based drug giant Roche can share that honor. "Over the past several years, on one to two occasions, we've been asked to identify the tablet for an arrest or whatever," confirms Barbara Johnston, the company's assistant director of policy and communications. "We had no idea that this was a problem in the United States, although we are aware of some problems in Western Europe. We have packaging and manufacturing plants throughout South America. If the DEA were to ask our help, we'd be extremely responsive, as we've always been in the past. We do a lot to support education regarding the proper use of pharmaceutical products. We think that's critical. We have security at all our plants, and we cooperate with authorities to make sure our products are not used illicitly or illegally. But we have no knowledge of this being a problem in the U.S.