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From the file

Spiking: An injection of fear | The “epidemic” of spiking with needles in clubs and at parties in autumn 2021 revealed something important about women’s lives in Britain. But it wasn’t what we thought.

Spiking: An injection of fear

Spiking: An injection of fear

The “epidemic” of spiking with needles in clubs and at parties in autumn 2021 revealed something important about women’s lives in Britain. But it wasn’t what we thought

Why this story?

There are moments in our national life which flare suddenly before our eyes  and show us something new and interesting. The spiking-with-needles crisis (as opposed to drink spiking) was one of them. You’ll remember it, almost certainly. Reports started to circulate last autumn of women (almost always women) being unwittingly injected with drugs from a syringe in clubs or at parties. The victims would often wake up the next day with no memory of what happened to them, sometimes with bruises centred around what appeared to be a needle mark. Social media lit up, and traditional media followed suit all around the world. Well over a thousand victims went to the police.

But what the spiking-with-needles crisis revealed wasn’t what we thought at the time. It’s now possible to say with certainty that what was reported – an epidemic of spiking with needles – didn’t happen. Four months on, no single incident of anyone who was injected with a drug has been found (although toxicology reports on two cases are still outstanding, and the slowness of investigations turns out to be part of the story).

But there wasn’t an epidemic. In fact, it would have been almost impossible for there to have been an epidemic. Medically, practically, it wasn’t within the range of possibilities.

So what happened? Something real, that’s for sure. An outburst of fear and concern about what women have to endure; a pent-up reaction to some of the terrible crimes against women during lockdown and the desperately inadequate police response; a sense that nothing was too horrible to imagine. Those things have taken on epidemic proportions. And they’re the real meaning of the spiking-with-needles crisis. Ceri Thomas, Editor

Transcript

Patricia Clarke: So, I’m just at the crossroads where I would normally go, down the canal, on my run. This morning it’s still a bit too dark so I’m going to turn up towards the main road where there are some lampposts and it’s a bit brighter.

Patricia Clarke, narrating: Back in September of last year, I was getting up early – much earlier than I normally do – because I was training for a half marathon.

Even at 7 am, London felt like it was buzzing. Children were heading back to school for the start of a new term and students were packing their bags, on their way to college or university.

It was a couple of months before omicron had entered our vocabulary and, even though the pandemic was far from over, it was starting to feel like things might be getting back to normal. But there was a darkness to that time of year, too. Everything may have been opening up but, in many ways, the outside world felt more hostile than ever. 

“Forensic teams search for clues outside the community centre in Southeast London, where the woman’s body was found.”

News clip

Patricia Clarke, narrating: On the 17th of September, a young woman called Sabina Nessa was killed in a park in southeast London. She was on her way to meet a friend.

“Police believe Sabina Nessa was attacked in this park.”

News clip

Patricia Clarke, narrating: Sabina’s was the latest in a spate of brutal murders of young women during the pandemic – Sarah Everard, Nicole Smallman, Bibaa Henry – to new only a few. 

And for me, I started running in the morning because it felt safer that way, avoiding the unlit canal path at night, and instead, heading up towards the main road where I could be seen.

A small personal decision made in the backdrop of this overwhelming news.

“They’re voicing their fears, their fury, that our society doesn’t protect women. They’re demanding change and an end to the violence.”

News clip

Patricia Clarke, narrating: Women’s trust in the authorities was at an all-time low, and fear was high.

And it was around the time of Sabina’s death that reports started emerging of a new danger. 

““Police are currently dealing with a wave of reports of spikings by injections at nightclubs and parties.”

News clip

Patricia Clarke, narrating: It wasn’t the spiking we already know about – they weren’t accounts of people slipping something into women’s drinks. These were reports of literal spiking, with needles. 

Spiking drinks is bad enough, but using syringes in busy nightclubs, it’s just awful.

News clip

Patricia Clarke, narrating: Viral TikToks showed people lying unconscious in hospital beds after nights out, or being carried to urgent care services by their friends. Some of them had millions of views.

Like, is this real? Is this actually happening? Is this real in England?

TikTok video

Patricia Clarke, narrating: The story even made it across the Atlantic. The New York Times called injection spiking a “new kind of assault” in the UK. The Washington Post said it was a “safety crisis”. There was fear everywhere. The threat of injection felt real. And at a first glance, it all felt plausible. 

Adam Waugh: I think that about discrepancies enough to say that it’s fairly unlikely that injection spiking is a widespread phenomenon that has affected, you know, say hundreds of women across the UK. 

Patricia Clarke, narrating: It wasn’t long though before questions were asked. Experts couldn’t verify the reports. There were gaps in the evidence.

The timing felt strange, too. If nothing like this has ever been seen before, how is it possible that new attacks are happening all at once, across the entire UK?

I’m Patricia Clarke and this week on the Slow Newscast, I’m investigating something which I’m now convinced didn’t happen – an epidemic of needle spiking. But this story is no less important or serious for that.

Patricia Clarke: So, do you remember the first time that you heard about needle spiking in the UK?

Lucy Ward: I do. It was during autumn 2021, and I think I saw something on Twitter. 

Patricia Clarke: And how did reading that make you feel?

Lucy Ward: Such a mix of things, very distressing, terrifying. It made me incredibly angry. I mean, you know, how many different ways can we frighten women, really? 

Patricia Clarke, narrating: This is Lucy Ward. Lucy is a writer and journalist. Her youngest daughter, who she’s asked us not to name, has just started studying at a university in England. It’s her first time living alone. 

Lucy Ward: Of course, you react as a mother with two girls, and of course a son, but I think it was more on the wider level of thinking about young women generally. 

Patricia Clarke, narrating: She sent her daughter a message, asking her what she’d heard.

Lucy Ward: And then she sent me this very fiery and heartfelt explanation of how she felt the lives of herself and her friends were kind of circumscribed.

Lucy’s right. It was a fiery message – paragraphs and paragraphs. It was an outpouring of fear and frustration.

Claudia Williams reading out the message: We keep our phones on and in our hands. Girls are wearing denim jackets because the material is harder to pierce. We simply accept the latest horror and come up with new ways to protect ourselves, and, of course, remain weak and vulnerable anyway.

Patricia Clarke, narrating: Her daughter’s message was so powerful that Lucy posted screenshots of it to her Twitter account. 

The caption to her post called needle spiking a “horrific new variant” in the “epidemic of drinks spiking targeting young women”. The tweet went viral.

Patricia Clarke: Knowingly or unknowingly for many people, I think your tweet might have been the first experience of the story of spiking with needles. I guess I wonder what was the response to your tweet eventually, it sort of went viral? 

Lucy Ward: Lots of people responded to it. And that’s why it’s difficult because I wasn’t operating as a journalist and so I didn’t have that kind of head on when I put it out there.

Patricia Clarke, narrating: As journalists, we’re always told to look at the evidence first. But that’s not what Lucy was doing when she posted her tweet. She was acting off instinct – a gut feeling. And when I ask her about why she chose to post anyway, she says the spiking, the needles – to her, that’s missing the point. 

What matters to her is the fear that women were experiencing. For me though, that’s not what I felt when I read her tweet. After all, she called it a horrific new variant in an epidemic.

Lucy Ward: I really want to stress, we can go down the spiking route if you want, and of course, people responded to that, and of course, they’re extremely shocked by the notion of that. But to me, I think the biggest shock, the thing that I found most heart-wrenching wasn’t the notion of whether the spiking itself happens, it’s more that women feared it, and thought it was entirely plausible. 

Patricia Clarke, narrating: Plausible. That’s exactly what I felt when I first heard the accounts of needle spiking. Why else would people – mostly women – be presenting in hospital with no memory of the day before, with wounds on their thighs and backs? 

And, after such a hostile year, injection spiking really wasn’t beyond the realm of imagination. It was just another thing for us to protect ourselves from.

Lucy posted her tweet on the 19th of October, two weeks after Wayne Couzens, a serving police officer, was sentenced to a whole life term for the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard.

It was also a month into the university term, those weeks when students are going out almost every night, getting to know the people around them. According to the police, that’s also when reports of drink spiking always increase. So the injections, the threat to women’s safety, it was all plausible.

And yet, despite all of the noise on social media, nobody actually had all the facts. Some police forces were investigating reported cases at the time, but there wasn’t a single confirmed instance of needle spiking anywhere in the country. The fear was understandable. So was the desire for women to protect themselves and others. ​​

But the posts that were meant to keep women safe had the opposite effect – they made us more scared. By posting about the fear, we were only perpetuating it.

Lucy Ward: You know, this is social media. It’s not my job to report it. It’s someone else’s job, but it is somebody’s job to investigate it for sure. And if what comes out of that is that this has never happened, okay. Isn’t that nice news, good. The big lesson from this is, you can take the lesson from it as, ‘oh, look, somebody said something and it wasn’t quite true.’ And we can all go silly girls, they believe something that wasn’t true or silly mum, she believes them. Or we can say, why did they feel terrified about this? Why do they feel it was so plausible? 

Patricia Clarke, narrating: Lucy’s right – we didn’t know what was happening at the time. We still don’t, really. I’ve headed up to Edinburgh, a city where there are 64,000 students, to meet a victim of suspected injection spiking.

It was actually on the train ride up there that I learnt something that completely changed the way I think about spiking. 

It was about Rohypnol – you know, the most famous spiking drug out there. That’s where we get the word “roofie” – the so-called “date rape” drug. 

It turns out, Rohypnol isn’t actually that common as a drink spiking drug at all.

In fact, the majority of studies – and there are several – suggest that people presenting to emergency services with spiking symptoms have actually consumed large amounts of alcohol or common recreational drugs like cocaine or MDMA. 

There’s actually one seven-year study from Norway that really stood out. It found that just 9% of people presenting to sexual assault centres with suspected drink spiking symptoms had sedatives in their systems, that they didn’t take themselves.

This ingrained idea we have about roofies — it might be 91% wrong. 

But — and I want to be quite clear here – that doesn’t mean no one is being spiked. Alcohol spiking is much more common than we think it is, a man might add a double shot to a woman’s drink without her consent, for example. That is still spiking.

Slipping other party drugs like MDMA into someone’s drink is spiking too – and it’s equally  hard to trace. If someone was already drinking or taking drugs, it’s much harder to tell if something was added to their drink.

All of this information is out there — experts are very clear about it. But none of it has changed how we think about spiking, or how we as a society respond to it. 

Which all takes me back to Edinburgh. If drink spiking is this badly understood, what on earth is going on with needle spiking? 

I’m in the city to meet a student called Bekah McInally. Like Lucy’s daughter, Bekah started university this year, when she was just 17.

It was her first time away from home, and everything was new. Going to university is always a scary moment – you’re living on your own for the first time, meeting coursemates and housemates. You have this newfound independence. For students who started university in 2021, that thrill – and that pressure – are even bigger. 

Most people of Bekah’s age lost out on their last two years of secondary school. Those are the years where you start going out when you’re experimenting, learning what it’s like to be independent. 

Covid took away all of that. It was already disconcerting to enter packed nightclubs and bars after two years of lockdowns. Reports of needle spiking meant the atmosphere was terrifying.

It was really scary. But I didn’t kind of believe it at first, because I was like, how can people be injecting people like that? 

They felt like a needle in the back and they were unsure of what it was. 

We looked at what places people were getting spiked and didn’t go to those for a while. 

Vox pops

Patricia Clarke, narrating: There were reports across the rest of Scotland, and England, Wales and Northern Ireland too. And they all flooded together on social media in a matter of days. 

Patricia Clarke: I’ve spoken to a few young women like you, and a lot of them said that around the time around October, there was this real atmosphere of fear around going out because they were seeing all this stuff on social media. Was that something that you can relate to? 

Bekah McInally: Yeah, I definitely felt scared because it was on the night of my birthday which was the 28th of October Edinburgh had a club strike, so every club decided to shut because everybody was refusing to go and that’s why we decided not to go.

Patricia Clarke, narrating: Back in October, near the start of the university term, a group of women organised a country-wide boycott of nightclubs. The movement was called Girls Night In, and women across over 50 towns and cities in the UK vowed to stop going out until spiking was taken seriously in venues. 

In Edinburgh, that boycott took place on October 28th – the same night as Bekah’s 18th birthday. At that point, the posts on social media were at their peak.

Patricia Clarke: That’s so interesting, so on the night of your birthday there was a strike because of this spiking thing. 

Bekah McInally: Yeah, so we were actually planning on going out but then we read it and we decided to have a night in. 

Patricia Clarke, narrating: Bekah was keen to celebrate with all her new university friends – it was her 18th, after all. But because people weren’t going to clubs, a big house party felt like the obvious choice.

Bekah McInally: I decided to spend it here rather than back home because my flatmates all wanted to do something. We thought because the boys had won their football match and stuff, everyone was just in such a good mood. So we all went to my flat, there must’ve been, I think, maybe like 40, 50 people there, roughly. And most of the people who were there were people that I knew and people with my accommodation. However, there were some people that, I just assumed my flatmates will know them or all of them or the boys from the football team will know them because at that point we’d only been living there for a month, so I couldn’t really be expected to know everyone. However I thought because I was in my own flat, I’d be completely fine. So I could hear everyone in my kitchen, it was so loud, I was still getting ready. 

Patricia Clarke, narrating: Bekah wasn’t with them just yet – she was actually late for her own birthday party – still getting ready in the room next door.

Bekah McInally: I went in around maybe 11 o’clock because I realised, right I need to go in and show face. 

Patricia Clarke, narrating: Everyone had had a few drinks by the time she arrived – that was at around 11 pm – but Bekah says she was still sober. Over the course of the evening, she had a couple of drinks – but not that many. Somewhere between two and four, she says. 

Bekah McInally: I remember everyone singing happy birthday exactly at 12 o’clock, which was so cute. The last thing I remember, everyone was just in the basement and I cannot remember a single thing after that.

Patricia Clarke, narrating: That moment is etched in her memory. But after that, the lights go out.

Patricia Clarke: And at what point did you think, ‘I think I’ve been spiked’?

Bekah McInally: Well, it was my flatmate who mentioned it to me in passing, she was like, maybe you’ve been spiked. And I just thought, no, that’s not happened and I just completely denied that because I think I was just too scared to admit it. And then I was just fixing my pyjamas or something, I realised like I had a lump and it was on the side of my leg, and I thought maybe I’d just hit it but I knew that it wasn’t really a lump from bumping my leg or anything. It was really hard, I don’t know how to explain it. And then it was when I was walking past the mirror, my friends were like, Bekah maybe going and look at it closer, and we did, and we realised there was a pinprick, just a wee tiny red mark. And then afterwards it started bruising quite badly around it. So we realised it was maybe a lot more serious than what I’d thought it was.

Patricia Clarke, narrating: Bekah showed me a picture of the bruise she found on her hip. It was angry, reddened – just like the ones I had seen on social media a few months ago. It had a red mark in the centre, too. Bekah’s experience is fairly representative of other known spiking cases – sickness, along with a sudden loss of memory and control. 

Bekah McInally: I wanted to get drug tested and I said this on the phone because I thought I could just go to A&E. And they were like, no.

Patricia Clarke, narrating: There was no CCTV in the flat, so there wasn’t much she could do to find out what had really happened. She started by ringing NHS 24 – Scotland’s medical hotline. 

Bekah McInally: They basically just said they couldn’t do anything about it, which I was obviously completely disheartened by. Because they said it was the police that deal with it rather than NHS. 

Patricia Clarke, narrating: She called the police a few days later, and they eventually visited her back in her student accommodation.

Bekah McInally: So they came and visited me and they pretty much told me I could do a urine test for up to a week after it happened however, it would take a year to come back, which was was not something I wanted to wait for. They told me I could report it and I was considering it massively, but when they came they just tried to discourage me from reporting it, which I don’t think they meant to do because they kept continuously saying that they didn’t want to discourage me but they just kept telling me there’s no CCTV in my accommodation, so there was no way to track every single person who was there.

Patricia Clarke, narrating: One police officer was particularly kind and supportive but, ultimately, reporting what happened to her felt like a lost cause.

Bekah McInally: They said they’d have to get a statement from every single person.

Patricia Clarke, narrating: The police said that they would have to get everyone who came to the party to fill out a statement – which felt humiliating to Bekah. It also would have been hard to track those people down, especially because she didn’t know everyone who was there. 

More surprisingly, at least to me, was that the police told Bekah that her toxicology report could take a full year to come back. So, if she had been spiked, it would be months before she’d find out for sure. She didn’t want that looming over her. 

So Bekah didn’t report to the police, and she couldn’t get a test from the NHS. Feeling powerless and frustrated, she posted on Twitter. She wanted to raise awareness, and help other people who were feeling as scared and lost as her. 

And her post was one of many. Across the country, she joined a growing number of women and men doing the same. 

Patricia Clarke: Hi Sophia.

Sophia Smith Galer: Hi!

Patricia Clarke, narrating: It was around this time, as reports flooded social media, that the story caught the attention of Sophia Smith Galer, a Senior Reporter at Vice World News. She also has a big following on TikTok. 

Patricia Clarke: And what was your initial reaction to the posts? 

Sophia Smith Galer:  My initial reaction was that I started thinking, wow, if this is the case, why haven’t the police said anything? Why haven’t healthcare services said anything? It sounds like the kind of thing that if this was happening, you’d have a really rapid response to it.

Patricia Clarke: Was that something that you’d ever come across?

Sophia Smith Galer: I’m very aware of drink spiking. I know people personally who have been drink spiked in the past, I have never heard of injection spiking and neither had our Global Drugs Editor at Vice World News, Max Daly, who’s just an expert on all things drugs. And when he said I’ve never heard of this before, that’s when I thought, okay, we’re not barking up the wrong tree here. If this has never happened before, what could this be? Are we seriously beholding a new criminal phenomenon before us? Or is there a little bit more to it? 

Patricia Clarke, narrating: So, back in October, Sophia began to dig deeper. She wrote an article in which her key finding was that this hadn’t been adequately investigated. And, given the available evidence, injection spiking on this scale just didn’t seem likely.

Sophia also posted her story on TikTok, where she has 300,000 followers. 

The backlash was swift. A lot of the comments on her post show confusion and concern. Here are just a few of them:

“Girls have woken up with a mark from a needle and blacking out – the fact they’re not experts doesn’t make them wrong about what happened to them”

“To hear this invalidation is scary, especially from another woman”

“I’m anxious that this video is now going to be misconstrued and used by men to push the idea that women are overdramatic”

We walk a fine line as journalists. It’s our job to look at the evidence, to speak to experts, and to share our findings with the public. But the evidence isn’t always there. 

We know, for example, that other cases of assault, like rape, are woefully underreported – and that doesn’t mean they’re not happening. So I don’t want to jump the gun with this kind of reporting. The last thing we need is for more people not to believe women’s testimonies.

But when there are serious gaps in the evidence, you have to keep asking questions. 

Adam Waugh: My name’s Adam Waugh, I work with drugs and the harm reduction charity, The Loop.  

Patricia Clarke, narrating: Adam is part of the senior team of The Loop, an organisation that specialises in drug safety and harm reduction. 

I wanted to speak to Adam to understand this idea of plausibility. At a first glance, it sounds like injecting a stranger with a drug might not be that hard. After all, we’re in the midst of a global vaccination campaign. Tens of thousands of people are getting jabbed every single day. 

And it happens in films all the time. The season finale of the hit Netflix series You showed the main character sedating a woman by injecting her with poison. He makes it look quite easy – he stabs her in the thigh and she collapses to the ground instantly. 

That aired on the 15th of October, just two weeks before Bekah’s party. 

There are famous examples throughout history too. In the 70s, the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was notoriously stabbed with a poison-tipped umbrella on Waterloo Bridge. It was laced with ricin, and he died soon after.

But, according to Adam, the reality of injecting strangers with drugs is a little bit more complicated than TV shows or organised criminals make it seem.

Patricia Clarke: So imagine I’m at a nightclub or a house party, can you talk me through exactly what kind of scenario would be necessary in order for a potential perpetrator to administer drug via injection?

Adam Waugh: I guess the most common way that people will think about inject injecting drugs is injecting into a vein. So that’s not really something that is plausibly going to be happening because as anyone who’s been to a hospital and had bloods done, you know, there’s a bit of a process of finding a vein and it’s not something that you could do while the person was unaware of it. But drugs, as well as being injected into veins, can be injected in other ways. And I think the most plausible other way that drugs could be injected would be into someone’s muscle. So to think through at a house party, you know, in what circumstance can someone inject a drug into you without you realising they’re going to have to use a pretty thin needle, so different drugs are injected through different sized needles, depending on the quantity of the drug that has to be injected.

Patricia Clarke, narrating: Adam and other medical professionals we spoke to, all agreed that administering drugs by intramuscular injection is difficult – and painful. 

There are many different drugs that can be used to sedate people by injection. Ketamine is one, but you’d need a lot of it – 100 to 200 milligrams. That means you’d have to inject it slowly to get it all into the body. Or you’d have to have quite a fat needle.

Adam Waugh: When Ketamine users intramuscular inject, it’s not the case that you can just stab yourself in the upper buttocks or into a large muscle and inject the ketamine straight away. So people who inject ketamin will generally do it over the course of half a minute or a minute, and they’ll massage the injection site. So when you’re thinking of what would happen at a house party, you would have to be sat there for half a minute or a minute while it was being slowly injected and causing quite a bit of pain.

Patricia Clarke, narrating: Other common spiking drugs are benzodiazepines, which are sedatives. These can be potent at smaller doses, like half a milligram, meaning they can be administered quickly, with a thin needle. The same is true for GHB, a depressant that can be taken orally or injected. 

But in order to inject someone with those, the person administering the drug would have to have access to an injectable version of this drug, and a syringe and they’d have to know just how much to administer. 

Too much, and you’d be seeing far more people in hospital with overdoses. This is particularly true for GHB, where the difference between the desired dose and a life-threatening dose is minimal. 

In other words, the person administering the drug would have to be a trained criminal.

Given what Adam has explained, that just doesn’t sound realistic – especially when reports were all happening at a similar time. This would have to be a coordinated country-wide attack to be true.

Patricia Clarke: How likely do you think it is that women are being injected by needles in nightclubs and at house parties and why?

Adam Waugh: I think there could be odd occasions where injections spikings happening and I wouldn’t want to ever say it’s impossible or completely rule it out, but I think that administering a drug via a needle, injecting someone in their muscle is not necessarily an easy process. And isn’t something that many people would be able to do. I think that the victim would be likely to notice it or feel it. And I think as well that, crucially, when someone is injected with needles, that injects drugs into the body and these drugs you would expect would be picked up on toxicology.

So I think that when one looks at the number of reports that have been made across the country, in the hundreds, and the amount of evidence that there is in terms of toxicology and attacks being caught on CCTV or someone seeing the person inject them, I think that discrepancy is enough to say that it’s very unlikely that injection spiking is a widespread phenomenon that has effected say hundreds of women across the UK. 

Patricia Clarke, narrating: Like drink spiking, there are caveats that we need to consider. Adam talked a lot about toxicology – that’s when doctors or the police take urine and blood tests to check if drugs are in someone’s system. 

The most common spiking drugs will stay in your system from 2 days to a week. But GHB leaves the system in 12 hours. So it’s possible that some people aren’t getting positive results because they didn’t make it to the police or a hospital in time.

So if injecting is unlikely, what explains the bruises that women were finding on their bodies, the puncture wounds?

That was something I was wondering. So I put together a document with some of the pictures I could find online – from articles, tweets, TikTok’s. There were about 20. And I showed them to a critical care doctor called Thomas Frost. 

He said that about half of the marks looked more like skin abrasions. So if someone had presented with them at a clinic, he wouldn’t have suspected injection was at play.

He also said you actually tend to bruise when you’re injecting into the vein, not the muscle. If you think about the vaccine, those injections don’t tend to leave a bruise.

What the experts are saying matches up with the current evidence about injection spiking. 1,382 cases of spiking by injection have been reported to UK police forces since September of 2021. These are cases where people self-reported as a suspected spiking.

But even now, five months after the first reports emerged, there are still no confirmed cases, anywhere in the country. This means there are no medical tests proving injection. 

Police Scotland also carried out a separate investigation into 51 cases of spiking. They published a report in January saying they found no evidence in any of these cases, either.

Of course, some victims aren’t getting tested at all, because they don’t know where to go. Like Bekah, they’ll go back and forth between the police and hospitals.

Patricia Clarke: Does that make sense to you? 

Adam Waugh: Yeah, definitely. The advisory council on the misuse of drugs, which advises the government on different matters around illicit substances, did a report. And they gave advice around drink spiking and drug facilitating sexual assault in general, and they gave advice that there needed to be, you know, if someone alleges that they’ve been spiked, there needs to be early evidence kits to get samples fast because of this exact issue. A lot of women, that I saw gave accounts exactly like the same story you did, that they turned up to the hospital and the hospital said, well, there’s nothing wrong with you, it’s not a medical matter, you need to speak to the police. And the police basically said, well, if there’s been no further sexual assault, we’re not interested in it. And it wasn’t investigated. And I certainly think that one, those people have been very much let down and two, there needs to be better practice going forward, that if someone presents alleging that they’d been spiked, that these tests are done immediately. 

Patricia Clarke, narrating: The people that are getting tests aren’t necessarily getting answers, either. 

The most compelling evidence I’ve seen in favour of needle spiking was from one of the police forces I contacted. They said that 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.

But even then, the toxicology reports still haven’t come back – so we don’t know for certain whether those victims were spiked. When I asked the police force how long it would take to get results, they said it can take up to a year. 

That’s a long time to sit with that uncertainty. Several of the other police forces I spoke to are still awaiting toxicology reports from months ago, meaning we can’t entirely rule out spiking. 

On the balance of evidence, though, even the lack of testing and underreporting from victims don’t account for the hundreds of reports that we are seeing across the country. For that many attacks to be happening at once, we’d be seeing at least some confirmed cases. 

It’s equally likely that at least one of the victims would have caught the injector red-handed, holding a syringe. No one I’ve spoken to has seen anything like this – not while they were being injected, not even on CCTV.

The more I dig into it, the less likely it seems. All of this begs the question – what actually is happening?

Patricia Clarke: And if you were in my position trying to figure out what’s going on, what would you do next? Who would you want to speak to? And what kind of questions would you want answering? 

Adam Waugh: I guess something that I’m interested in is looking at the evidence around whether people’s expectations that they’ve been spiked could be causing some of the reaction. There’ve been a number of cases around the world when people think that they’ve been exposed to a drug, that their body, on a completely subconscious level, mimics the effect of the drug.

Patricia Clarke, narrating: Adam is one of three experts we spoke to who raised this as a possibility. Victims might be experiencing symptoms – entirely real symptoms – driven by profound psychological effects.

At first, I was sceptical, but there was one case study that helped me make sense of this. It was about fentanyl. You’ve probably heard of it – it’s a synthetic drug that’s 50 times more powerful than heroin, and it’s a key player in the US opioid crisis. It’s responsible for thousands of deaths across the United States.

An East Liverpool officer accidentally overdosed on fentanyl after searching a vehicle with drugs inside. Investigators say that the driver of the vehicle was covered in a white powdery substance.

News clip

Patricia Clarke, narrating: In 2017, reports emerged about a US police officer who was recovering after a fentanyl overdose. He was nearly killed after searching a car that had fentanyl inside. After he brushed it off his clothes, it triggered a severe reaction, and he ended up in urgent care.

He wasn’t the only one. Over the past few years, dozens of police officers, mostly men, have reported symptoms after coming into contact with the drug. Some of them have been severe, almost deadly, disorientation, trouble breathing, even cardiac arrest.

The thing is, you can’t get high from touching fentanyl. Yes, it is one of the most powerful drugs out there – stronger than heroin and morphine. But it’s just not medically possible to feel its effects by touching it. 

And yet, the officers still got ill. So ill that they ended up in hospital.

But none of the reported fentanyl cases have been confirmed as overdoses. There were no traces of drugs in the officers’ systems. Most experts suggest that the symptoms that these officers were facing were psychological. 

One study explicitly attributed the symptoms to misinformation about the risk of fentanyl in the police. They found that 80% of officers still believed you can get high from touching or breathing in fentanyl. 

And actually, officers in the US are now receiving training to better understand its effects.

When I think about those swathes of social media posts about needle spiking, the horrible bruises all over my timeline, the reported symptoms of sickness and memory loss, it doesn’t surprise me that people were scared.

And when those symptoms are continuously reported online, without input from experts, and linked to a new unproven medical phenomenon, then I think that is misinformation. 

None of this is to say that fear isn’t justified. The context of the pandemic – the massive anxiety, the lockdowns, the mistrust in the police – it feels like the perfect storm for justified panic. 

Bekah McInally: It breaks my heart my friends would always check each other’s backs. 

Patricia Clarke, narrating: Bekah and I spoke for hours when I was up in Edinburgh. She told me about her party, the aftermath, her life as a student now.

Patricia Clarke: So this is what we spoke about on the phone, right? I’m going to ask a couple of questions, I want to be very clear that it’s not because I don’t believe you. 

Patricia Clarke, narrating: After she told me her story, I asked her if I could play her a clip from my interview with Adam, from the drugs charity, so she could hear what experts had to say about cases like hers.

I want to be clear that it’s not that I don’t believe Bekah. I just wanted to see what she made of the evidence I had gathered.

I played Bekah the clip where Adam explains the challenges of injecting strangers with drugs.  

Bekah McInally: I don’t really know how to put it into words but it’s kinda just like, it’s kind of made me feel a bit sick thinking about it because, for example, I was discouraged by NHS 24 from going to actually get a drug test when that’s what I requested. And I said that multiple times, I wanted a report or something, so I could kind of prove what was in my system. The same for the police. I don’t know. I feel like it just kinda makes me feel like I’ve just about like frustrated and like disheartened like hearing things like that as well because especially when it’s been so widespread with people sharing photos and things like that as well. 

Patricia Clarke, narrating: Bekah was visibly frustrated. And I wasn’t surprised. She was given no way of finding out what happened to her – not from the NHS, who sent her to the police, or the police, who told her it would take a year to get results.

If she’d been given a test or at least more information about cases like hers, she might not have continued living in fear.

Bekah and I kept talking. We discussed the atmosphere on social media and the lack of information out there about spiking, whether that’s drink spiking or needles. 

After hours of conversation, Bekah sounded increasingly comforted by what Adam said.

Patricia Clarke: And what’d you think you would have felt if you had read something like what we just played you from Adam, if you had read that kind of information, how would that have contextualised what happened to you? 

Bekah McInally: I feel like if I had seen it beforehand, I don’t know, I feel as if I’d be a lot less scared but I understand there’s a lot of questions around how can this happen to so many people because obviously, that’s an expert speaking and there are so many people coming out saying it’s happened to them. So I understand there’s a lot of disconnect around it. But I think if I’d heard something like that at the time I would have felt a lot safer, about it.  And I would’ve been less scared about going out in Edinburgh for example.

Patricia Clarke: And do you think if you’d woken up with a bruise on you’re, like after reading that, do you think you would’ve felt the same way that you did?

Bekah McInally: I feel as if I would have still definitely phoned the NHS because there was just like a tiny red needle mark, so I think I would’ve still phoned the NHS but I maybe would have felt calmer about it. 

Patricia Clarke, narrating: I don’t know what I was expecting when I played Bekah that clip. I thought she might feel angry or patronised. I even thought she might lash out at me, just like all those commenters on Sophia’s TikTok.

I wasn’t expecting her to feel relief.

Throughout this whole investigation, I kept going back to my conversation with Lucy – the journalist whose tweet went viral at the start of this story. She said that, ultimately, this is a story about fear. 

And I think that’s true. But more than that, Bekah’s reaction made me realise that it’s a story about trust. Bekah ultimately trusted Adam’s expertise, and that helped her contextualise what happened to her. It helped her feel – in her words – safer.

And that’s the thing – women haven’t been feeling safe. Because their trust in the police, and in men, is fundamentally broken.

The murder of Sarah Everard was the worst possible example of a system that is stacked against women. 

And that lack of trust, it feeds the fear. It was, I think, what led thousands of people to share their accounts on social media. It was what made the story sound plausible.

But before Bekah felt relieved, she felt angry. 

And she wasn’t angry at me like I thought she would be. She was angry at the system. She was angry at the police who, perhaps unintentionally, convinced her not to report the crime. And she was angry at the NHS, who couldn’t give her answers.

One person I spoke to described our society’s response to spiking as “porous”. Victims are sent back and forth between the police, the venue, and the hospital, so the majority never get a chance to report. 

And if they do manage to get a test and report their case to the police, drink spiking doesn’t even have a crime code. 

This means the police might record a sexual assault in their official record, but not the drink spiking if it also happened. Or, they’ll record it among other cases of poisoning. So we don’t have a count – we just don’t know how many women are being spiked every year.

All of this means that when someone wakes up concerned that they’ve been spiked, they don’t know where to go, or who is going to help them. 

It’s in those holes – in this porous system – that the fear breeds. I can say now, with confidence, that I don’t think an epidemic of needle spiking happened last autumn. 

But, if it isn’t already obvious, I still think this story matters. Immensely. Because we need to repair the trust. And because without trust, there is only fear. 

As we’ve mentioned throughout this story, the advice on spiking is not always clear. 

If you think you or a friend has been spiked and are feeling unwell, call 999 for an ambulance, especially if there is loss of consciousness, breathing difficulties, or impaired sight. You can call 111 for any other health concerns.

If you can, you should also make sure you alert the venue and report it to the police. 

This story was reported by me, Patricia Clarke, and produced by Gary Marshall. The sound design was by Tom Kinsella. The editors were Basia Cummings and Ceri Thomas.