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PRESCRIPTION FOR AN EPIDEMIC

'Rape Drug' Battle Rages : Amid Growing Evidence of Misuse, Maker Fights Push to Outlaw Rohypnol

Rx FOR AN EPIDEMIC: Token Enforcement Allows Pill Peddlers to Flourish. Second in a two-part series

August 19, 1996|DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In more than 60 countries, the powerful tranquilizer Rohypnol is lawfully prescribed as a sleeping aid and sedative for surgery patients. But in the United States, Rohypnol--dubbed the "date rape drug"--is at the center of one of the nation's most hotly contested regulatory conflicts.

Although Swiss pharmaceutical company Hoffman-LaRoche has not received approval to market Rohypnol in the United States, the drug has been seeping into communities across America. Sexual predators are dropping it into the drinks of their intended victims. Junkies are using it as a substitute for heroin. Others are mixing it with alcohol and marijuana to enhance the high.

So many teenagers and young adults now abuse Rohypnol in the South, law enforcement officials fear that the potentially addictive hypnotic could become "the Quaalude of the 90s."

Alarmed by the surging misuse, some states are moving to outlaw the drug--and its manufacturer is fighting back hard.

The political combat has been most intense in Florida, where South American smugglers have found a lucrative market for the small flesh-tone pills.

In June, Florida's attorney general invoked his emergency powers and declared Rohypnol a Schedule I drug--a designation under state and federal law for illegal substances such as heroin, LSD, peyote and marijuana.

That controversial dictate came after a bruising political battle with pharmaceutical giant Hoffman-LaRoche--a rematch of which will likely occur during the next year as the Legislature decides whether to endorse or lift the new classification.

Hoffman-LaRoche wants Rohypnol to be classified as a Schedule IV drug, the ranking for medications with a low potential for abuse. Drugs in this category are among the least regulated and have some of the lowest criminal penalties for misuse.

What Hoffman-LaRoche dreads most is a domino effect. Company officials say that if Florida continues to call Rohypnol an illegal substance, the rest of the world might follow. At stake are $100 million in annual profits from international sales and the possibility that patients currently using the drug would be frightened away from a medication deemed illegal by an influential nation.

"People take their cues from what happens in the U.S.," said Al Wasilewski, an assistant director of public policy for Hoffman-LaRoche. "Florida is a bellwether state. What happens there will be noticed elsewhere."

Company officials say they would rather see higher criminal penalties, educational programs and new sales regulations in Latin America to curb smuggling into this country, thus reducing the abuse.

Early this year, Hoffman-LaRoche and its allies in the Florida statehouse quashed the first push to make Rohypnol illegal, despite overwhelming political support for the change. Sources said shrewd maneuvering prevented several measures aimed at tightening restrictions on Rohypnol from coming to a vote in the waning hours of the Legislature.

Instead, the lawmakers imposed tougher sentences for sales and possession of Rohypnol. But without changing its classification, the door was opened to legal challenges that the new penalties are excessive for the drug's low-level, Schedule IV rating.

Monica Hofheinz, a Fort Lauderdale prosecutor who worked on the rescheduling issue, said the state Legislature ultimately seemed more interested in protecting the international image of the pharmaceutical company than the people of Florida. "The only thing that is effective is rescheduling," she said. "It sends a message that the drug is dangerous."

Hofheinz recalled that the Quaalude problem of the 1970s and early 1980s virtually disappeared when it was classified as a Schedule I drug.

The main lobbyist for Hoffman-LaRoche in Florida was J. M. "Mac" Stipanovich, the chief of staff for former state Gov. Bob Martinez and a campaign strategist for Republican Jeb Bush, son of former President George Bush. Stipanovich also is friends with the president of the Florida senate, Jim Scott, who can influence what gets voted on and when.

A spokesperson for Scott said the new penalties, which raised maximum sentences to 30 years in some cases, were more appropriate than creating a new rating to deal with the abuse of Rohypnol.

Despite Hoffman-LaRoche's legislative success, Florida Atty. Gen. Robert A. Butterworth felt so strongly about the dangers of Rohypnol that he exercised his emergency powers, declaring it an illegal Schedule I drug. He said "the effect of rescheduling on Hoffman-LaRoche's overseas market--besides being irrelevant under Florida law--is entirely speculative." Once again, it will be up to the Legislature to decide within one year to vacate or make permanent Butterworth's temporary order.

No matter what happens in Florida, the controversy is far from over. Texas, North Carolina, California, Missouri, New Jersey and the federal government also are considering reclassifying Rohypnol and imposing tougher sentences for sales and use of the drug.

In California, police do not even have the power to arrest people caught with Rohypnol. Pending bills by Assemblyman Larry Bowler (R-Elk Grove) and Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) would change that.

"Because of the rapes, this drug is the only drug known to victimize the innocent," said Bowler, who wants to include Rohypnol violations in the state's three-strikes law. "It is now the only drug excluded from the three-strikes and its tough penalties. That isn't the message we want to send out to the street."

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