Since the reopening of clubs and nightlife over the summer, there has been a surge in reports of drink spiking across the UK. The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said there have been “198 confirmed reports of drink spiking in September and October across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, plus 24 reports of some form of injection.”
Both The New York Times and The Washington Post have published reports about the sudden and worrying rise in needle spiking, where drugs are injected into unsuspecting victims with syringes in crowded venues. It is an unusual and deeply distressing phenomenon. Fiona Measham, professor and chair of criminology at the University of Liverpool and director of The Loop, a non-profit organisation established in 2013—which provides drug safety testing, welfare and harm reduction services at nightclubs, festivals and other leisure events—explained to The New York Times how needle spiking is “not impossible but it’s really unlikely.”
Of course, its supposed rarity doesn’t mean that these allegations should be dismissed so easily, “I think the anxieties are very real, the anger toward nightclubs is real.” Details around such an incident are often hard to ascertain, given those involved are usually to some extent drunk, and drugs used in spiking tend to affect memory as well as perception.
This spiking ‘epidemic’ has, it seems, been exacerbated by the start of term for universities around the UK. Young people, many of whom won’t have been clubbing before, are suddenly finding themselves in new situations, in new cities, with new groups of friends. People are vulnerable—and disgustingly, yet unsurprisingly, there are those who will take advantage of that.
Issues of women’s safety were forced into the spotlight following the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Metropolitan police officer and later, Sabina Nessa—but practical and pragmatic policy to crack down on violence against women still seems uncertain. That some police forces have responded poorly to the situation is particularly disappointing—though again, not shocking. It is a scary and anxious time for us all, especially for women and feminine people.
Tomorrow, Wednesday 27 October, sees a boycott of nightclubs around the country, organised by groups from more than 60 universities. Organisers hope to highlight issues of women’s safety and to put economic pressure—sometimes the only kind people will listen to—on venue owners to tackle the escalating problem. An online petition calling for a legal requirement that nightclubs “thoroughly search guests on entry” has amassed over 165,000 signatures, meaning it will now be considered for debate in Parliament.
Within this ongoing and developing situation, social media has since become a double-edged sword. Through Twitter and Instagram, people can quickly share stories, warn others about particularly dangerous locations, and share resources for help and advice. An infographic by Student Beans—a company that organises and coordinates student discounts—was shared widely over Instagram and has been liked over 600,000 times.
That being said, misinformation and dangerous rumours can also spread quickly via social media, with people sharing and reposting unverified and sometimes harmful stories. One such story claimed that someone was diagnosed with HIV shortly after a needle injury. The National AIDS Trust explained on Twitter that this was “demonstrably false” as contracting “HIV from a needle injury is extremely rare. A diagnosis takes weeks.” (If you think you have potentially been exposed to HIV in the past 72 hours, go to A&E or a sexual health clinic immediately—they can prescribe PEP—post-exposure prophylaxis—which greatly reduces the risk of HIV infection).
Not only did this promote a dangerous stigma about HIV, but it was based on misinformation and hearsay. It is important—vital, even—to distinguish and highlight verifiable concerns from unconfirmed rumours. We need to be able to tell real stories apart from fake news in order to be able to properly gauge the extent of the problem and, thus, work towards the best solution.
Reading these news reports, I am reminded of Michaela Coel’s phenomenal and award-winning television show, I May Destroy You, which explored deftly and acutely issues of spiking, sexual assault, rape and trauma. If you haven’t watched it, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Not only does Coel approach the complexity of these issues skillfully and with aplomb, but she is also provocative and doesn’t hold back her punches—perhaps asking more questions than she answers.
While it is unfortunate and downright infuriating that there seems no accountability to the men perpetrating these attacks—after all the responsibility lies with them and not women—any information about how women may better be able to protect themselves should be noted. Drinkaware has advice for what to do if you think a friend has been spiked:
– Tell a bar manager, bouncer or member of staff
– Stay with them and keep talking to them
– Call an ambulance if their condition deteriorates
– Don’t let them go home on their own
– Don’t let them leave with someone you don’t know or trust
– Don’t let them drink more alcohol—this could lead to more serious problems
The symptoms of drink spiking can vary depending on the person and the drug used but can include: lowered inhibitions, loss of balance, feeling sleepy, visual problems, confusion, nausea, vomiting and even unconsciousness. It can be difficult to tell these symptoms apart from the effects of alcohol—but if you or a friend start to feel strange or drunker than you feel you should be, then get help immediately.
Drink spiking can happen in any situation at any time, either at pre-drinks, a house party or on a night out. It is, needless to be said, never the victim’s fault. But there are a few things you can do to lower the chance of being spiked: never leave a drink unattended, don’t accept a drink from a stranger (especially if you have no idea where it has come from), avoid drinking too much in one night and always try and stick with a group of friends.