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27 October 2021

The mystery of nightclub needles should not distract from rising cases of drink spiking

As women start to boycott night clubs across UK cities, experts are divided over claims of spiking by injection. But victims of drink spiking are increasingly at risk – and unprotected.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

Over the past week, several women have shared their stories of being “spiked by needles” and injected with drugs at nightclubs in some British cities, including Nottingham and Edinburgh.

They have circulated photos of wounds online that they believe are a result of being pricked with a needle, while reporting symptoms consistent with spiking, including dizziness, blackouts and memory loss.

Police in Nottingham are currently investigating 15 reports of alleged spiking via a needle, the BBC reports, while Scottish police are looking into similar incidents in Edinburgh, Dundee, Glasgow and Aberdeen.

But some experts have pointed out the practical difficulties of spiking using an injection. For example, emergency medicine consultant David Caldicott warned in a recent report by Vice News that such an injection would likely take too long to administer without the victim noticing, and a scientist at drugs charity Loop, Guy Jones, raised the difficulty of where on the body to inject such drugs.

Phil Whitaker, the New Statesman’s medical editor, said it would theoretically be possible for an attack with a needle to occur. “An injection would be felt, and the reports I’ve read say women… have felt something – but they might very well not realise what’s happened.”

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He disputed the idea, raised in the Vice article, that such injections would need to be inserted into muscle – suggesting that, theoretically, injections could “definitely” be administered in areas with low fat-muscle content such as the back (a photo has circulated online of an alleged victim with a puncture mark on their lower back).

However, in the context of spiking, Whitaker added: “It would be an odd thing for a perpetrator to do, as it’s no more ‘effective’ than spiking a drink.”

In Exeter last week, three women were given the all clear and “peace of mind”, having feared they had been spiked via injection.

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While uncertainty persists over what exactly these women have experienced, there is currently no evidence of a nationwide needle-spiking surge. But this should not ignore the reality that drink spiking is prevalent on campuses and in nightclubs, and many women do not feel protected. Durham University, for example, withdrew a student awareness campaign earlier this month that caused outrage after telling students: “Don’t get spiked.”

“There’s just a sense of being fed up at the lack of accountability being taken,” Alice*, a third year student at Cardiff University, told the New Statesman. “There’s this [mantra] of ‘protect yourselves’. We are trying but it’s not working – these perpetrators are finding different ways of getting people into a vulnerable state.

“It should no longer be up to victims to protect themselves. It should come down to institutions to help us.”

Female students across the country have organised a mass boycott of nightclubs on 27 October called “Girls Night In” in response to an atmosphere they say is increasingly threatening.

Alice, who had her drink spiked in her first year of university, organised the Cardiff arm of Girls Night In herself. She said that while she doesn’t “solely” blame clubs for spiking, they could do more to help those who are vulnerable. “All these measures” – such as increased security and focus on clubbers’ wellbeing – “that clubs say they already have put in place [to protect people], they’re not exercising.

“The overwhelming experience of [female] club-goers is negative towards bouncers, for example: they don’t treat women who they think are just too drunk very well,” said Alice.

She would like to see club staff and security taught how to spot and respond to spiking, and for clubs to have an active welfare team trained to deal with all types of assault – “measures to keep us safe is what we’re really asking for”.

More than 2,600 incidents of spiking were reported to the police in England and Wales between 2015 and 2019, according to figures obtained by the BBC in 2019 from 22 out of 43 police forces and the British Transport Police.

However, the true figures are likely to be much higher, as few victims report their experiences. Ninety-two per cent of those who have had their drink spiked didn’t report it, according to a survey of 747 young people aged 18-25 carried out by the Alcohol Education Trust in the week after 12 October, seen by the New Statesman.

“A lot of the time, a spiking is really difficult to prove or report,” said Mair Howells, 23, who was spiked on a night out celebrating a friend’s birthday in south London in February 2020.

She said there are a number of reasons why someone may not report an incident: “It’s something that people don’t tend to want to acknowledge and in a lot of cases, people don’t realise they’ve been spiked until a bit afterwards, or they’ve been embarrassed and don’t want to come forward, or they think ‘I just had too much to drink’ or ‘I just did something silly’.”

A lack of general awareness or access to information and services for victims of spiking led her to create an Instagram page called ivebeenspiked, acting as a forum for people to find resources and share their own stories.

Howells suspects her drink was spiked in the moment she turned around and passed two drinks back to her friends.

“After that, I don’t remember anything of that night,” she said. She was found in the men’s toilets by her sister (who herself had been spiked two months earlier) with her chin split open, a fractured wrist and a concussion – a result of falling over after being drugged, Howells believed.

“My immediate reaction was just to blame myself, [thinking] ‘I must have drunk too much or taken something’ even though I knew I hadn’t,” she said.

“But in a weird way that gave me back a sense of control because I was like: ‘It must have been me that did this to myself, it wasn’t someone else.”

The following morning, after a conversation with an A&E nurse who told Howells of her own similar spiking experience, she realised what might have happened. It is not uncommon for those recalling their spiking experiences to be met with accusatory doubt: sceptics imply victims may simply have had too much to drink or been under the influence of drugs, and are unable to handle the consequences.

Howells described such attitudes as “backwards”. “All I was doing was going about my business, and someone’s done something horrible and unthinkable to me against my will. We should be punishing the people who actually do this in the first place; it shouldn’t be up to us to cover our drinks and have to be super, super aware all the time.”

Last week, in response to the shock reports of the possibility of spiking via injection, the Home Secretary Priti Patel requested an “urgent” update from police on the situation.

Michael Kill, CEO of the Night Time Industries Association, goes further, calling for a “full inquiry to understand through the cases that have been reported exactly how these [attacks] have happened”.

Anecdotally, he said instances of spiking have risen “over the last few years”. In many cases, the rise in incidents “correlates with [the] 150,000 new 18-year-olds who came of age during the pandemic who potentially are not streetwise or [are] somewhat naive to some of the situations or potential perils of going out”.

Until conclusions have been drawn from the upcoming police update, he said short-term measures including raising public awareness of spiking, as well as increasing searches at the door of clubs and bars, would help.

A parliamentary petition launched in April this year aimed at making it a “legal requirement for nightclubs to thoroughly search guests on entry” has received over 160,000 signatures, which means parliament must consider it for a debate.

However, others argue that stricter measures could have adverse effects if implemented, including excessive targeting of marginalised and minority groups. “Even for women, I’ve been made to feel unsafe by security guards, so giving them more power to me is scary,” said Howells.

But it’s not just clubs and pubs that carry a risk – house parties also pose a danger. Of the people surveyed by the Alcohol Education Trust, house parties were the most common place that spikings occurred (35 per cent), followed by nightclubs (28 per cent).

Part of the difficulty in tackling spiking is that there are few stereotypes; men can also be targets, and non-alcoholic drinks are often poisoned – it’s “not always ‘stranger danger’” when it comes to such attacks, Helena Conibear, CEO of Alcohol Education Trust, told the New Statesman.

So what can be done? Could the recent wave of media attention, along with the police inquiry, the parliamentary petition and a nightclub boycott lead to a watershed moment in tackling drink spiking?

Firstly, “there needs to be a justice system that has the capacity and the resources to take such attacks seriously”, warned Rebecca Goshawk of Solace, a crisis centre for women and children. “The police are the front line, and there are certainly attitudes and culture within the police that need to change to [make sure] they take women seriously.”

“I think there’s a long way to go because spiking is a part of an overall problem,” said Alice. “It’s not just drugs, but sexual assault, abuse of minorities, and so it’s part of a much bigger picture.

“This is an ongoing conversation. Until we see some real change not only in spiking but in the handling of sexual assault victims in general, that’s when we will start to see a proper change.”

*Name has been changed on request of anonymity.

[See also: Injection spiking is likely very rare – so why are we so scared?]

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