Needles, blackouts and self-doubt: How the UK is fighting a spiking epidemic

It was meant to be just another Saturday night for Mair Howells.

The 23-year-old was getting ready to go out for a family friend’s birthday, at a club just down the road from her in Peckham, South London. After having a beer with her two friends before leaving, she headed down to the bar – a venue she knew well and frequented many times before. 

‘There was a credit card limit at the bar so I bought three drinks, one for me and two for my friends,’ she says. ‘I turned my back on my drink for a split second.’ 

Mair’s last memory of that February night two years ago was her slowly sipping her drink, before waking up in her bed the next morning, aching and covered in blood.

‘I’d smashed my nose and split my chin,’ she recalls. ‘I had to go hospital for treatment.’ 

After sitting in King’s College Hospital’s A&E department with her injuries for five hours, a nurse, who also said Mair had sustained a sprained wrist and concussion, asked her to recall the evening – which she simply could not do. 

‘The nurse said it sounded as if I’d been spiked,’ Mair says. ‘She’d been spiked before herself, and said she had a really similar experience.’ 

Mair still has no recollection of that night, nor any idea of who may have spiked her. The only mementos she has of the incident are the scars from the injuries she sustained. 

Instead, she clutches at threads of narration provided by her sister, who found her later that evening. ‘It was my sister who took me home, after she found me passed out in the men’s toilets,’ she says. ‘When I was back, I vomited everywhere, so she put me to bed with a bin next to me. 

‘I have no memory of it at all. It’s just a total blackout, which I just never have.’ 

Mair is not simply just one victim of a rare and unusual circumstances: she is one of thousands of people who are thought to have been spiked every year in the UK, with the phenomenon having reached ‘epidemic’ levels. 

In 2021, 2,201 people across England and Wales reported incidents of spiking to the police. However, it is thought that only one in 12 people report spiking, with the true figure estimated around a staggering 43,000 spiking victims in just one year. 

The figures have prompted a new report from the Home Affairs Committee, which looks to investigate and develop new strategies to combat spiking. 

One point the report raised was for and for the offence to be taken more seriously when it is reported, with a more coherent and collaborative strategy between emergency services to get evidence and support victims when an allegation is made. 

Mair opted not to go to the police after the incident. 

‘When I was in hospital, I was told it was too late to have a blood test as what I had been spiked with would have left my system,’ she explains.  

‘My sister has been spiked before, and when she went to the police, she was told she needed to go to King’s College Hospital to get tested. My mum took her to A&E and they were told that the hospital “doesn’t do forensic testing.” 
 
‘When my mum went back to the police, they said they could not investigate any further without tests, and that was the end of the matter.’ 

Time is of the essence when it comes to getting a blood test. Many substances used to spike people, such as GHB and ketamine, have short half-lives, effectively meaning they can be out your system in less than a day. 
 
‘Most drugs will be unreadable in blood or urine between 12 and 72 hours,’ Dr Gareth Nye, lecturer in Physiology at the University of Chester, explains. 

‘As soon as you are able to get tested, you should. As your body metabolises the drugs, the amount will get lower and lower until it’s no longer recognised. This is dependent on the amount spiked with. 

‘Generally speaking, the longer it’s left, the less easy it is to test for.’ 

Mair adds that her sister’s experience is not an outlier. Having started I’ve Been Spiked in response to her night out – a platform which gives victims a platform to share their spiking experiences – Mair has heard numerous accounts from people who say they were ‘ping-ponged’ between services, with this lack of co-ordination between venues, police and health services leading to many incidents just being left by the wayside. 

‘It seems no-one takes responsibility, and it’s such a time critical thing as well,’ Mair says. ‘It can make victims feel unheard and ignored. It makes reporting it feel pointless.’ 

 The Home Affairs Committee also pointed towards a ‘culture of blame’, with many people being told they may have had ‘one too many’ and dismissing their story – ultimately resulting in a barrier in people feeling confident enough in reporting their offence. 

Helena Farren, a 23-year-old account executive, feels that these attitudes around spiking served as a contributing factor that prevented her reporting the incident to police.  

Helena was just 19 when her drink was spiked in her first year at Exeter University. She was at a popular venue with a group of friends, when she started to feel unwell. After falling down the stairs at the club, Helena managed to hail a taxi and get home – where two of her flatmates took care of her as she drifted in and out of consciousness. 

‘I’d only had two drinks, yet I suddenly started to lose feeling in my legs and I knew I just needed to get back,’ she explains. ‘I passed out in my kitchen, but I just have no memory of it. 

‘When I described what happened to people, I was told I was being “overdramatic” and I was “embarrassed” that I’d drank too much. 

‘I did start to second guess myself. I was certain I had two drinks, but because my memory was so foggy, I started to question what happened. 

‘There’s that mentality from people where you’re not taken seriously or that people doubt your story.’ 

Helena adds that, although she felt unwell and emotional for a few days afterwards, the fact nothing untoward happened to her while she was spiked stopped her from reporting the incident to authorities. 

‘It was traumatic, but I was very lucky to have gotten home safely and had people around me,’ she says. ‘I remember thinking, I’m a month and a half into university, this is just one bad experience, I should just move on and throw myself back into uni life. I didn’t want to make a massive deal out of it.’ 

In order to instil confidence to spiking victims reporting a crime, Home Secretary Priti Patel has said she is considering bringing new legislation to make spiking an illegal offence in its own right. 

‘Our response to such appalling acts must be as robust as possible to ensure that everyone is protected, regardless of a perpetrator’s motivation,’ she said at the time. 

‘That’s why we are proposing a more wide-ranging review and, if there is a clear case for making spiking a standalone offence, then I will not hesitate to bring in new laws.’ 

However, spiking is already a criminal offence under UK law. 

‘If someone is spiked by someone with the intent of committing a sexual offence, then this is illegal under the 2003 Sexual Offences Act,’ solicitor Paul Britton explains. ‘If the accused argues they did not have any intent to commit a sexual offence, then they can still be prosecuted by 1861 Offences Against A Person Act, administering poison with intent to injure, aggrieve or annoy.’ 

Yet, subsequent criminal action following a spiking incident in England and Wales is dismally low. Since 2018, only 44 people have been charged with a criminal offence in relation to spiking. Elsewhere, in 1268 cases reports, no suspect was identified. 

‘I think the frustration for the police is the evidential side of it. Allegations are all well and good, but when it comes to criminal matters, the allegations have to tie in with independent evidence for there to be a chance of prosecution,’ Britton explains. ‘Even then, with cases like this, finding the perpetrators can be difficult.’ 

He argues that it may be more beneficial for more focus to be placed on the overall prevention of spiking. 

‘We need to look at the cause, and implement measures to stem it,’ the solicitor says. ‘To make pubs, bars and restaurants safer, we could implement rules that mean they have to have certain standard of CCTV in their licencing laws, with footage available to download and review quickly for investigation. Stronger records should be kept of who is coming in and out of venues. Facial recognition should be put in place.  

‘As a criminal, you’re not going to go somewhere where you’re going to get caught. These establishments that have proper protection and deterrents will become more popular because they’ll be safer.  

‘Extra measures may be more expensive, but what price do you put on the safety of people in your establishment?’ 

Instead, Patel’s announcement serves only as a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to the problem at hand, says Britton. 

‘It’s all very well introducing specific legislation for spiking, but more detail is needed beyond just asserting that,’ he explains. ‘It’s one thing reacting to it, but what we really need to do is sit there and ask what effective measures can we bring in to stop this happening?’ 

The need for the government to act urgently likely stems from the reported rise of needle spiking, which took place in autumn 2021. 

Stories where young women claim to have been pricked by a needle rippled across social media, quickly causing widespread panic amongst a young population who were ready to go clubbing once again after more than a year in lockdown. 

The National Police Chiefs Council said there were 274 reports of injection spiking in the UK in September last year – and the social media frenzy saw Warwick MP Matt Western claim that the phenomenon should be treated ‘with as much urgency as terrorism.’ 

Rebecca Derbyshire recalls being pricked with a needle while on a hen do in Liverpool last September. 

‘It was really busy, and I was queuing in the bar for a drink before I suddenly felt a weird sensation in the back of my shoulder,’ the 26-year-old explains. ‘It took me a few moments to realise what it was, as it was so out of context.  

‘I turned to my friend and said that I thought I’d just been injected. My friend took a look at my neck, and there was a small mark there as if I’d been pricked with something.’ 

Thankfully, Rebecca felt no ill-effects after being jabbed, but the incident left the group feeling shaken, and they headed back to the hotel. 

While Rebecca did report the incident to police shortly after the event, no subsequent action was taken; when they contacted the club to review CCTV footage, they were informed the club did not hold on to any recordings beyond 24 hours. 

However, Rebecca praised the officer she spoke to for being ‘understanding’, after he urged her to go to hospital and be tested for HIV and other bloodborne diseases – something she had to do three times over a period of months before being given the all clear.  

‘The suspense over that couple of months was unbearable,’ Rebecca admits. ‘I had to take some time off work to cope with it. I know it was a small chance, but it didn’t make it any less scary. 

‘It definitely put me off going out. I haven’t been back to a club since. I’ve only just started going to pubs again. As someone who was spiked while they were at university, I’m super careful with drinks – but how is anyone meant to protect themselves against a needle?’ 

While social media platforms made needle spiking seem like a major incident unfolding throughout the country, it is a hugely challenging feat for the average person to pull off, says Dr Gareth Nye. 

‘It would be incredibly difficult to leave a needle in long enough to inject a substance like this,’ he explains. 

‘To inject someone correctly, you need full training and years of experience on a patient that is willing and still. There is a significant amount of time to fully inject a drug (normally between 10-30 seconds) and it would be noticeable as soon as it pierces the skin. Some needle are extremely thin and are less noticeable, however, it would take much longer to inject the volume needed.’ 

Regardless of this, the reports prompted women across the country to boycott pubs and clubs as part of the Girls Night In campaign, as more people called for tougher measures against spiking. 

‘The needle spiking epidemic was symptomatic of how bad things have got,’ Mair explains. ‘Personally, I believe the needle attacks was scaremongering. I know men can get spiked, but I only ever saw stories of women being pricked with a needle.  

‘I think people saw the epidemic as a new way to attack and target women, and stop them from being in public spaces.’ 

With the Home Affairs Committee now promising to do more to improve support to victims and tackle spiking, Mair welcomes the changes – but is cautious about getting her hopes up. 

‘I was pleased to see how much ground the report covered, and the action they’re calling for,’ she says. ‘It’s this type of systemic change I’ve been campaigning for.  

‘But it’s hard not to be pessimistic about it. We need more than just the report. Spiking will only get worse if nothing is done to stop it. It’s now up to the government to put measures in place.  

‘Until then, we need to keep the conversation going to remind people that spiking just isn’t going anywhere.’ 

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