Last autumn, numerous accounts of injection spiking began to emerge across the entire UK – 1,332 police reports, to be precise. Tortoise’s latest investigation explores this phenomenon – and the total lack of evidence for it.
When we started digging into this story, our question was simple: what really happened? What emerged was a story about fear, misinformation and mistrust.
Case files provide Tortoise members with a behind-the-scenes look into our investigations. This week, we explore just how quickly this story went viral. We also dig deeper into the data – both for injection and drink spiking – and the case studies that feature in the podcast.
The beginning – social media
We started our investigation into needle spiking after dozens of accounts of this new phenomenon flooded social media. People were posting pictures of bruises and puncture wounds, alongside personal accounts of injection spiking, and some were starting to go viral.
Needle spiking began trending in October, just days after the first accounts emerged on social media. Google search data tells us that the public’s interest in the topic peaked in mid-late October, about a month into the university year.
The data helps give us a sense of the novelty of this story. There were no searches for the term at all until late September of this year, and interest in the topic grew exponentially after that. Searches peaked shortly after and petered out again in the new year.
When investigating a new phenomenon, you always start by trying to gather the evidence – and data. But we had neither of those things when we started investigating this story – we just had people’s accounts.
We spoke to several women, all of whom were suspected victims of injection spiking. They all told us similar accounts of fear and confusion after waking up with bruises after a night of feeling ill.
One of those women featured in the podcast. Her name is Bekah, and we found her on Twitter after she posted an account of her experience. She wanted to raise awareness of what was happening to her and others.
She told us in detail about her story, the fear she experienced, and the atmosphere on campus and on social media.
We also spoke to Lucy Ward, a journalist whose tweet went viral. She shared an impassioned text message from her youngest daughter, explaining the fear she was experiencing at university.
Those conversations helped us understand the context of this story. Women were experiencing profound anxiety, particularly as they emerged from another wave of the pandemic.
Investigating accounts of needle spiking
As numerous accounts emerged on social media, the police confirmed that they were receiving several reports of suspected injection spiking – sometimes dozens per force.
Home Office data tells us that there were a total of 1,382 police reports of needle spiking between September and January.
However, none of these cases have yet been confirmed. In other words, there is no forensic evidence or toxicology report confirming both penetration by a needle and presence of drugs in a person’s system.
In October, several articles from local newspapers reported “confirmed” cases of needle spiking. When we reached out to police forces to ask whether these cases had been confirmed by toxicology reports, they told us that they were just self-reported cases.
Not a single police force was able to confirm a case of needle spiking. The most compelling evidence we saw was from a police force that said they have records of two cases of penetration by a needle, confirmed by medical professionals. Both were related to reports of spiking by injection, and both happened in the past few months.
However, the cases are not yet confirmed, as the toxicology reports still haven’t come back – so we don’t know for certain whether those victims were spiked.
When I asked that police force how long it would take to get results, they said it can take up to a year. Multiple police forces confirmed toxicology reports take between four months to a year, meaning we cannot yet entirely rule out needle spiking.
What the experts said
We wanted to understand why, despite over 1,300 reports of needle spiking, there weren’t yet any confirmed cases – so we reached out to experts for more information.
The people we spoke to included national security specialists, criminologists, doctors and the drugs expert you hear on the podcast – Adam Waugh.
They explained the technicalities of injecting a stranger with drugs in a crowded space, and provided alternative explanations for the bruises and puncture wounds. That’s all in the podcast.
Adam also helped me understand the difficulties around drink spiking, which provided us with important context for our reporting.
The little data we have on this issue surprised us in the early stages of our reporting, because the numbers are low. Across the UK, there were 710 cases a year between 2015-2019 – that’s about 11 cases per million people, every year. That certainly doesn’t match the anecdotal evidence.
The discrepancy is partly an issue of underreporting. One study found that 1 in 9 women say they’ve been spiked – but not all of them went to the police.
However, there’s even more evidence to suggest that drink spiking is just poorly understood in our society.
Here are some of the reports that helped us understand this:
- This seven-year study from Norway features in the podcast. From 2003 to 2010, they looked at 264 patients presenting to a sexual assault centre. Of the 57 patients who thought they had been spiked, only five tested positive for sedating drugs that they hadn’t taken themselves. They found that the higher the blood alcohol level, the more likely the person was to feel they had been spiked by a drug.
- One 2009 study of Australian emergency departments looked at 97 patients presenting to urgent care with suspected drink spiking. The authors identified just nine plausible cases of drink spiking: four were from drugs, and five from alcohol. This means one in ten suspected spiking patients were likely actual victims of spiking. The mean number of drinks consumed was seven, while nearly a third of patients tested positive for illicit drugs, although none were symptomatic of acute amphetamine poisoning. After discharge, a third of patients still felt they had been spiked, regardless of negative test results.
- This 2007 UK study looked at 75 patients presenting to urgent care thinking they had been spiked. Forty-two samples were tested for drugs – of those none tested positive for GHB or flunitrazepam (Rohypnol).
There are caveats to this data. It’s all pretty out of date, and has other limitations. As we mention in the podcast, GHB is eliminated from the body very quickly, so it can be hard to detect. The fact that patients had alcohol in their systems doesn’t just mean they were drunk; it’s also a drug that could be caused by spiking.
However, the studies do help us understand the myths around drink spiking – i.e. that it’s mostly rohypnol administered by strangers. The research suggests that alcohol and illicit drugs like cocaine and MDMA play a much greater part in spiking.
So what’s really going on?
After investigating the evidence, we began to feel increasingly confident that needle spiking wasn’t the country-wide “epidemic” it was originally reported to be.
Three of the experts we spoke to suggested that, while spiking symptoms might be entirely real, there may be a psychological element to these cases too.
The study we feature in the podcast is about fentanyl. Police officers across the US were presenting to hospitals with overdose symptoms after touching the drug – even though it’s medically and chemically impossible to get high after touching fentanyl.
This November 2021 research specifically attributed these cases to misinformation. Out of 129 officers, 80 per cent agreed with the incorrect statement “First responders who encounter fentanyl are at great risk of overdose by touching it or inhaling it.” The study found that online training can help correct false beliefs about the risk of fentanyl overdose.
Another case study that several experts mentioned, but we didn’t get into in the podcast, was about TikTok.
Throughout the pandemic, more and more people – mostly girls and women – aged 12 to 25 have been going to doctors with symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome – verbal and motor tics. Two years ago, just one per cent of tics disorders were unexplained. However, one August 2021 study found that 35 per cent of tic cases are now unexplained – a significant change.
Experts attribute this jump in unexplained Tourette’s cases to TikTok, where a growing number of content creators with Tourette’s syndrome have been sharing viral videos of themselves and their tics. The people presenting to clinics are experiencing entirely real symptoms, but experts believe these are not traditional cases of Tourette’s, particularly as it’s a condition that always appears in early childhood. Rather, they say that a combination of pandemic anxiety and exposure to TikTok may have contributed to this sudden onset of symptoms.
The fentanyl and TikTok studies help us understand how fear, anxiety and misinformation can drive entirely real, and worrying symptoms. It may be an explanation for the cases we are seeing of needle spiking – the dizziness and loss of memory, for example. We will never know for sure what happened last autumn. The research and data we have so far has helped us understand what didn’t happen – and that’s equally important.