What do we know so far about reports of ‘spiking’ with needles?
Police across the UK are investigating dozens of reports of people being spiked with needles in clubs and bars, with fears of a worrying new trend emerging.
The reports, alongside a significant number of drink spiking cases, have led to a nationwide conversation about the crime and inspired a boycott of nightclubs and bars dubbed ‘Girls Night In’.
But despite the fact the investigations are in very early stages, the disturbing reports have already given rise to misinformation online. The National Union of Students (NUS) alerted Full Fact to a huge wave of enquiries, with anxious students unable to find the most up-to-date information on the situation without also encountering misinformation.
A spokesperson for the NUS told us: “The wave of headlines and stories about possible ‘injection spikings’ that have emerged over the past few weeks has led us to be inundated with enquiries from students’ unions as it’s been hard to determine the scale of the problem and distinguish the truth.
“Students we have spoken to are understandably very anxious and panicked, many women are taking extreme measures in an effort to protect themselves when venturing out and in the absence of clear and verified information they are left to fear the worst.
“It is essential that each case is fully investigated quickly and findings are shared to fill the information vacuum and hopefully assuage concerns around widespread injection spikings.”
Here’s what we know so far.
Police are investigating reports across the UK
The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead for drugs, Deputy Chief Constable Jason Harwin, has said: “We have now had responses from all forces across the UK in relation to incidents involving some form of injection, with a total of 56 confirmed reports from across September and October.
As of 23 October, the NPCC had also collected 198 reports of drink spiking, in addition to the 56 reports of incidents involving a needle.
With stories of spiking via injection emerging at a rapid pace through both traditional media outlets and social media, it’s very difficult to definitively describe how widespread the reports are. What we do know is that the first reported attack of this type to emerge publicly took place at a nightclub in Nottingham on 11 October.
Nottinghamshire Police have since said they are investigating 15 separate incidents, reported within less than a month, of young women and men being jabbed with “something sharp”.
Two men, aged 18 and 19, have been arrested by Nottinghamshire Police on suspicion of conspiring to administer poison, but not in connection with any specific reports of spiking either via injection or drinks. They have since been released under investigation.
Sussex Police is investigating seven reports of women being spiked via injection in Brighton and Eastbourne. Hampshire Constabulary has said it is investigating one report of a woman being spiked by injection at a nightclub in Portsmouth.
Lancashire Constabulary has confirmed it is investigating after a woman reported being injected with an unknown substance in Preston. Norfolk Constabulary has said it has received six reports of people either being spiked or injected.
Wales Online reports that four women in Swansea claimed to have been spiked by injection, though these have not been confirmed. South Wales Police has said it had received “a small number of reports from people” who believed they had been spiked via injection, and was investigating.
The Scottish Sun also reported four stories of suspected spiking with a needle across Scotland, with cases in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen.
Police Scotland told us: "We continue to investigate a very small number of reports across the country from people who report having been “spiked” either with a needle or in their drink.
“We are also aware of posts referring to spiking incidents circulating on social media.
"Our enquiries are ongoing and at this time we do not believe that these reports are linked."
However, not all of the reports made have shown evidence of widespread needle spiking. Three women who reported feeling unwell after nights out in Exeter and suspected they may have been spiked via needles were found to have no traces of spiking drugs in their systems, while police in St Albans said there was no evidence to suggest a woman who reported a potential incident of spiking via injection had been the victim of an offence.
Detective Sergeant Paul Wadsworth, from the St Albans Local Crime Unit, said: “I’d like to publicly praise her actions as she did absolutely the right thing by making her way home with the support of her friends, attending hospital and requesting a blood test as well as reporting it to us so we could investigate.”
Some messages from official accounts, such as West Yorkshire Police also warned that being injected with an unsterilised needle could expose someone to HIV.
While it is possible to contract HIV through a used needle, the National Aids Trust said this was “extremely rare” and described the social media posts as “demonstrably false” due to the fact that testing and diagnosis takes weeks, not days as was suggested.
Deborah Gold, the chief executive of the National AIDS Trust, told Reuters: “In the UK it is recommended that people wait six weeks after possible exposure to test for HIV. This ensures that those testing can be confident that any negative test is accurate.”
Ms Gold said anyone who thinks they have been exposed to HIV in the past 72 hours should go to an A&E or a sexual health clinic.
She added: “There have been no confirmed cases of HIV infections from needle stick injuries in the UK since 1999, and whilst it is possible to acquire HIV by sharing unsterilised injecting equipment, in the UK the number of examples of this each year is very low.”
Experts say it’s unlikely spiking by needle could be done easily on a wider scale
With the investigations into the attacks still ongoing and new reports appearing frequently via social media, there’s very little we can say for sure about the specifics, but experts seem to agree that while it is plausible that spiking by injection could be carried out by an individual or very small group, it’s very unlikely that it’s being easily replicated on a wider scale.
To get a better idea of what could be happening, we spoke to Guy Jones, senior scientist at The Loop, a non-profit organisation focused on drug safety, and John Slaughter, senior forensic toxicologist at Analytical Services International, which provides toxicological services, including forensic toxicology which is used to identify legal and illegal drugs and poisons.
Both said that the recent cases were the first time they had heard reports of needles being used in spiking cases, and agreed that while it was certainly plausible that one or a very small number of attackers could have attempted to use needles to spike victims in bars and nightclubs, it’s unlikely that perpetrators could replicate the method easily on a wider scale.
Mr Slaughter said: “If someone is jabbed with a syringe then their reflex action is going to be to move away within a second or two.
“The opportunity for someone to actually inject enough drug from that syringe to have the effect, I would think, is fairly low. I’m not saying it’s absolutely impossible, I'm just saying, in my opinion, it's unlikely.”
He added, however, that the fact the chances of effectively spiking someone with a needle are low doesn’t mean people aren’t being deliberately jabbed by sharp objects while on a night out.
Mr Jones said: “All of this is against the backdrop of ‘why not just add it [drugs] to a drink?’ You’ve got to deliver this drug by injection, clearly that needs to be done in as subtle a way as possible, and so here’s a big disadvantage compared to drink spiking—you’ve got to stab someone with a needle.
“That introduces a very significant element of risk and a massive reduction in plausible deniability for somebody who is administering a spiking agent.”
Mr Jones and Mr Slaughter also said it was very unlikely that GHB, the drug most commonly associated with drink spiking, could be used in an attack involving a syringe due to the relatively large volume of liquid needed to effectively drug someone. An attacker would either have to use a very large needle, which would be immediately noticeable to most people, or would have to inject very steadily over a longer period of time—potentially up to 30 seconds—while remaining undetected in a busy nightclub or bar.
The fact it would be very difficult to administer GHB at a high enough quantity to incapacitate a victim means a would-be attacker could use a different type of drug such as a type of benzodiazepine. GHB occurs naturally in the body, which often makes detecting it after a spiking incident very difficult, but benzodiazepines are far easier to detect.
However, Mr Slaughter explained injectable benzodiazepines are not available to the public. There are so-called “designer benzodiazepines”, sold as street drugs such as diazepam, which could also be processed to create injectable spiking solutions but this would be very difficult for someone with no specialist knowledge to do.
Are we in a spiking epidemic?
It’s hard to get a clear picture of the scale of drink spiking and spiking via injection because there simply isn’t recent or comprehensive publicly-available data on the number of reported cases.
The most relevant data we have is published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), and covers 16 to 59 year-old victims of sexual assault as self-reported through the Crime Survey for England and Wales. This dataset covers victims who reported that they had been drugged during the attack they had experienced, however due to the pandemic the most recent figures are from March 2020.
The question is only asked every three years and the figures from both the most recent and previous surveys are combined to create a larger sample size. They show that in the years ending March 2017 and March 2020, 5.2% of victims reported that they had been drugged by the perpetrator. This breaks down to 5% of female victims, and 9.2% of men.
Freedom of Information requests collected by Sky News and published in 2018 found that reported incidents of spiking had doubled in three years. The BBC reported in 2019 that there had been a rise in the number of cases, with 2,600 reported incidents in England and Wales since 2015.
There has been some suggestion that there is an annual increase in spiking cases every autumn, coinciding with the return of students to university, however we could not find evidence of this in the limited publicly-available data on this issue.
Helena Conibear, CEO of the Alcohol Education Trust, told Vice: “What we’ve found over 11 years of our existence is that there is a rise in reporting to us [of drink spiking] during freshers’ week in the autumn.”
Police Scotland also told Full Fact it had observed a “small but notable increase in October and November”.