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Sensemaker: Spiking fears spread

Sensemaker: Spiking fears spread

What just happened

Long stories short

  • UK energy bills will rise by 80 per cent from October (more below). 
  • Europe came close to a “radiation disaster” after a Russian-occupied nuclear plant was briefly disconnected from the power grid, said Ukraine’s Zelensky.
  • A US judge said a redacted file on the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago raid must be released later today.

Spiking fears spread

Last October, as first-year students celebrated their arrival at university, reports began to emerge of a new phenomenon: needle spiking. Dozens of people posted pictures of bruises and puncture wounds on social media after nights out. The victims – mainly young women – believed they had been injected with drugs by strangers without their consent. 

A Tortoise investigation in February found no evidence of widespread needle spiking. Sedatives are incredibly difficult to administer quickly and painlessly via syringes, doctors pointed out. And how could an outbreak of injection spiking – a previously unknown crime – emerge across the entire country at once, almost overnight? At the time, no cases had been confirmed by toxicology reports.

But since then, reports of needle spiking have emerged abroad:

  • 1,004 cases have been reported in France since January;
  • Brussels and Amsterdam each reported dozens of cases in May;
  • Most recently, Spanish police investigated over 260 reports nationwide in the five weeks to 10 August.

The victims show marks of injection, bruises and report symptoms like dizziness and vomiting. In France, several suspects have been detained but medical tests did not find evidence of harmful substances. Spanish police have also been unable to confirm spiking reports through toxicology tests. 

Britain’s National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) told Sensemaker there had been 2,065 police reports of injection incidents since September 2021. There have also been confirmed cases of needle spiking. But – and this is an important but – the confirmed cases are very rare. 

Tortoise sent out Freedom of Information requests to every police force in the UK asking how many cases of injection spiking had been confirmed by toxicology reports. Fourteen forces provided data, with 2 per cent of injection spiking reports confirmed. That’s a total of 16 cases – and in some instances police were not convinced a drug had been administered.

A separate fast-track national intelligence route to specifically investigate cases of needle and drink spiking where no other offence has been committed was set up in the autumn of 2021. The taskforce behind it told Sensemaker:

  • Since September 2021, the intelligence route has received 400 reports of spiking;
  • Of these, nearly two thirds were cases of injection spiking;
  • Of the 268 injection spiking cases investigated, one was confirmed.

In a statement, Deputy Chief Constable Maggie Blyth said the taskforce had made several arrests across the country in relation to injection spiking, but added that the policing body is “still working to understand [the offence]”.

Sources say that reports peaked between September and December 2021, but anxiety remains high – particularly at universities, where students are about to start a new academic year. Several young people said they were nervous about going to nightclubs and parties; some even spoke of wearing extra clothing to protect against syringes. 

What next? We may start to have a clearer picture of the scale of the problem after October, when the Home Office will announce whether spiking – of any kind – will become an official crime in the UK. A new criminal code would finally mean police data on spiking, but even that may not go far enough: the Home Office confirmed its figures wouldn’t differentiate between cases of injection spiking and drink spiking. A wider report into the scale and nature of injection spiking specifically isn’t due until next Spring.

What is clear is that a legitimate fear of violence among young women in particular is real and ongoing. Drug experts said measures could be implemented now to address concerns around spiking, including:

  • Better education on drugs and alcohol, and how they interact with our bodies;
  • Better training for staff at nightclubs and other entertainment sites;
  • More funding for services to provide safety tents at festivals and other large venues;
  • Public campaigns to challenge misogyny and violence against women.

While data is crucial to understanding the offence, policies like those listed above could do more long-term good. Otherwise, no matter the criminal code, women will suffer.


Winter catastrophe
Energy prices paid by British households will rise 80 per cent in October, putting enormous pressure on consumers and further stoking inflation. The government’s energy regulator, Ofgem, said a typical household electricity and gas bill will rise to £3,549 a year, up from the current £1,971, as Russian restrictions on supplies to Europe push up wholesale costs. The price cap increase will affect around 24 million households and follows a 54 per cent rise in April, with industry forecasts suggesting typical annual bills could reach £6,600 by next April. Citizens’ Advice estimates that one in three households simply won’t be able to pay. The current government is missing in action – Ofgem said a new prime minister due to be announced on September 5 would instead have to act “urgently and decisively”. 


Instagram restrictions
Last year, Instagram announced plans to rollout more safety measures for teenagers after leaked documents from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed the company was aware of the damaging impact of the app on teenagers’ mental health. In March, it introduced parental controls. In June, it allowed users to adjust settings to select between “more”, “less” or “standard” access to sensitive content. This week, it has tweaked this feature further, rolling out a system that puts all new users under 16 years old to the “less” setting automatically (although they can still adjust to “standard” later). Teenagers already on the app will also be encouraged to adjust their settings to choose the most restricted filter. But the only way this works is if teenagers do as they’re asked – if they’ve even entered their correct age in the first place. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

The origins of life
“Synthetic” mouse embryos have been successfully created in laboratories without using eggs or sperm. The embryos, developed using stem cells, only lasted for eight days due to defects, but reached the point where they developed distinct organs, including a beating heart and brain tissue. The results from two teams that successfully grew these embryos have been published in Cell and Nature this month, and could improve our understanding of the earliest stages of organ development and why some pregnancies fail. “The big question we’re addressing in the lab is how do we start our lives?” said Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz from Caltech in Pasadena, California, and the University of Cambridge. Scientists said the next milestone would be to create a synthetic embryo using human stem cells, but this would involve much bigger ethical questions. Given the latest developments, we should start having this conversation sooner rather than later. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Nuclear renaissance
Japan is planning a return to nuclear power more than a decade after the largest earthquake to hit the country led to meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced on Wednesday that his government will explore bringing back 17 out of 33 operable reactors by the summer of 2023. It will also research the construction of a new type of safer, light-water reactor. The aim is to reduce Japan’s heavy reliance on expensive energy imports and to prevent blackouts. But even in the context of a global energy crisis, it’s a stunning reversal. Kishida, who is from Hiroshima, has made a calculation that Japan’s anti-nuclear lobby is not what it once was and that the public is more concerned about energy security right now than nuclear risk. He’s not alone in that calculation: Germany has also been backpedalling on its plans to quit nuclear power by the end of this year.


Myanmar arrests ex-ambassador
Vicky Bowman, the former UK ambassador to Myanmar, has been arrested by the country’s ruling military junta on alleged visa offences and is being detained alongside her husband, Htein Lin, in a Yangon prison. Bowman, the director of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, and Lin, a Burmese artist and former political prisoner, have long advocated for the improvement of human rights conditions in the country. The army has detained thousands since it seized power in a coup last year. The arrests came as rights groups marked “Rohingya Remembrance Day” yesterday: five years ago around 750,000 Rohingya Muslims fled into Bangladesh under a campaign of army abuse that the US branded a genocide. Many are still trapped in squalid refugee camps. No one was punished. Listen: Myanmar’s forgotten coup.

Do you have a story to tell about needle spiking? Email us at sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com

Patricia Clarke

Additional reporting by Jessica Winch, Barney Macintyre and Laoise Murray.

Photograph: Getty Images

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