‘Drinks, needles... what next?’ Inside the terrifying spiking scandal on UK campuses

·10 min read

Watch: Hundreds march through Manchester over drink spikings in clubs

Last night, Ella Mansell and her friends didn’t put on their clubbing shoes and gather for drinks, as they’d have liked to have done on a Wednesday evening in freshers’ term. 

Instead, like thousands of undergraduates across the country, the King’s College English literature student and her flatmates stayed at home at their laptops, sending messages to club owners as part of a nationwide boycott of UK nightlife venues. “We want to let venues know why we’re doing this,” she says, referring to the frightening new wave of spiking - drugs being put into (mostly female) victims’ drinks, and more recently, injected into their bodies - across university towns and campuses.

For Mansell, 22, the reason for joining the boycott is personal. Exactly four weeks ago, on a sports night at the university bar with friends, she was spiked - or she presumes she was, given the speed at which she lost consciousness. The last thing she remembers is going to the bathroom just before midnight, feeling confused and unwell. She regained consciousness hours later in A&E, having been discovered by friends on the floor in a bathroom cubicle. 

“It was terrifying. It feels like there’s nothing we can do to protect ourselves these days,” says Mansell, too afraid to return to the bar where it took place - or any bar or club. Since ending up in hospital last month, she’s felt conflicted. As much as she believes socialising is an important part of student life, the incident was clearly far from a one-off. In the same week she was targeted, 15 other students reported similar incidents at her university alone. 

King’s student Ella Mansell is taking part in tonight’s boycott after being spiked last month (Ella Mansell)
King’s student Ella Mansell is taking part in tonight’s boycott after being spiked last month (Ella Mansell)

The Alcohol Education Trust say spiking cases always surge during the first term of the new academic year, but recent weeks have seen suspected incidents reach chilling new levels across the UK. According to a survey by nationwide news site The Tab, more than 2,600 young people believe they have been spiked since the start of this academic year, with half of respondents - almost 12,000 people - believing a friend or someone they know has been spiked since the start of this university term. 

For the Class of 2021, spiking is quickly becoming more than just a terrifying numbers problem. Among the rising tide of cases is an even more frightening new iteration: so-called “needle spiking” or spiking by injection, after a small but growing stream of suspected victims from Newcastle to Cardiff have reported waking up from blackouts with “puncture wounds” on their arm, leg or lower back. The National Police Chiefs Council recently confirmed there have been at least 56 ‘confirmed reports’ of some form of injection spiking in the last two months - including at least 12 incidents in Nottinghamshire and seven in seaside towns from Brighton to Eastbourne. A 20-year-old man has been arrested as part of a wider spiking investigation by Nottinghamshire Police. 

 (Alamy Stock Photo)
(Alamy Stock Photo)

Some victims say they felt a sharp pinch or scratching sensation before they blacked out. Others say they developed dark bruises on their hand the next day. “I found a pinprick in my lap where the pain was,” one victim, Nottingham student Zara Owen, 19, told reporters earlier this month. “The nurses told me ‘it seems as if you’ve been spiked, possibly by a needle’,” said another, Nottingham second-year Sarah Buckle, 19, who spent 10 hours in hospital. “I could have been raped, or even died.”

Medical experts have called on the public not to scare-monger - cases of needle spiking are rare and still unverified. “This has not been adequately investigated... it’s very difficult to explain,” emergency medicine consultant David Caldicott told Vice this week, though criminology professor Fiona Measham warned that while the risk of being spiked by a needle was “exceedingly low”, it might be possible with a more powerful drug. 

I found a pinprick in my lap where the pain was

“If you’ve got a strong drug and a tiny needle it’s absolutely possible that this could happen and not even be noticed by the victim until later,” cosmetic doctor Dr Shirin Lakhani has since agreed. 

The drugs used in such injections are yet to be identified, but some experts believe they are the same “date rape” drugs used for drink spiking attacks, such as Rohypnol (roofie) or Gamma Hydroxybutyrate (GHB). An investigation by the Mirror this week found a drug with identical effects can be bought on the dark web for as little as £9.  

Imogen Marchant is boycotting Durham’s clubs for the entire week (Imogen Marchant)
Imogen Marchant is boycotting Durham’s clubs for the entire week (Imogen Marchant)

“If I didn’t think I could be shocked anymore, if I didn’t think the behavior could get any lower, this is a new depth,” Sue Fish, the former chief of Nottinghamshire Police, said of the suspected new crime wave. Meanwhile home secretary Priti Patel and chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee Yvette Cooper have called on police forces to undergo a comprehensive nationwide review. 

At universities - where the majority of reported incidents have taken place - students and staff say they have been deeply alarmed by the new spiking epidemic: after 18 months of having their freedoms curtailed by Covid, many are now afraid to go out. “I thought we’d be having the experience that was robbed from us last year, but I don’t feel safe going out anymore,” says Emily Taylor-Davies, 19, a second-year languages student at King’s whose friend was spiked by a suspected injection in Bristol this week. 

“It’s always been, ‘Watch your drink, cover your drink’... You can’t cover your whole body,” Nottingham student Jocie Mears, 18, told the New York Times following the wave of injection allegations. “Girls are wearing denim jackets because the material is harder to pierce,” another student wrote on Twitter, angry that she and her peers are constantly expected to “accept the latest horror and come up with new ways to protect ourselves”. 

At Durham University where a female undergraduate claimed she was spiked by a needle last month, anger has reached fever-pitch, says Imogen Marchant, 21, a third-year English student. The murder of alumnus Sarah Everard by Met Police offer Wayne Couzens sparked a national conversation on female safety over the last six months, diminishing trust in the police and prompting calls for greater public protection on the streets. 

Emily Taylor-Davies says she doesn’t feel safe to go out after the spikings (Emily Taylor-Davies)
Emily Taylor-Davies says she doesn’t feel safe to go out after the spikings (Emily Taylor-Davies)

“When is this kind of thing going to stop happening to women?” she asks, referencing cases where venue staff have been convicted of spiking. Should she and her peers now be afraid to go to bars and nightclubs, too? 

At campuses across the country, students are rallying. More than 120,000 people have now signed a petition calling for clubs to be legally required to search guests more thoroughly on entry and some venues have already tightened security. At Jimmy Allen’s nightclub in Durham, staff have introduced body cameras, lids for plastic cups and hand-held metal detectors for frisking students and their bags on entry. Pryzm nightclub in Nottingham is asking students to remove their jackets and empty their pockets before walking through a metal detector. 

Languages student Lucy Nichols, on the night two of her friends were spiked in Manchester (Lucy Nichols)
Languages student Lucy Nichols, on the night two of her friends were spiked in Manchester (Lucy Nichols)

Universities say they are listening, working with bars and police to boost safety, but many young people have started taking the matter into their own hands. Last night, students in more than 40 university towns took part in a nationwide boycott of nightclubs - not to signal that women should stay at home, but that venues must do better to protect safety. 

Organisers from campaign group Girls Night In, whose city-specific Instagram accounts have more than 12,000 followers, say they’re calling for “tangible” changes, including stoppers for drinks, more rigorous searches on nightclub doors, and more thorough training for staff. 

In Durham, Marchant and her peers don’t think one night is enough. This week, hundreds of students including the university’s men’s rugby and cricket clubs will boycott the city’s nightlife venues for a full seven days - partly a backlash to the university’s now-deleted tweet in which its wellbeing account told students: “Drink spiking is dangerous and something you can prevent happening to you and your friends #don’tgetspiked”.

The tweet was criticised for ‘victim blaming’, an issue many students feel is still a problem more widely. “We shouldn’t be told to wear leather jackets just so we can go clubbing,” says Marchant. She doesn’t want to be put-off clubbing in her final year of university, but recent incidents have certainly made her re-evaluate who she surrounds herself with a nightclub. “The idea of being knocked into isn’t just an uncomfortable reality of going out anymore - it’s a real danger,” she says of the threat of syringe-wielding attackers. 

Marchant says she’ll aim to go out in big, mixed-gender groups from now on, but it’s not just women and girls being targeted. Mansell and Marchant say they both have male friends who’ve been spiked - as reflected in Girls Night In’s decision to change its name to a more inclusive title (its boycotts will now be named after the city they’re in, such as Southampton Night In). 

Venues where spiking incidents are taking place are similarly wide-ranging. While many student city nightclubs are open to the public, other reported incidents are taking place in student-only bars. “It should have been a safe - or safer - space,” says Mansell, who was spiked in a student bar last month. Could it have been a fellow student? Or even a staff member? She wonders.

A student bar should be a safe space... was I attacked by a fellow student? Or a member of staff? 

For Manchester third year Lucy Nichols, 21, it’s this idea that staff could be involved that drove her to organise a demonstration. At 7pm this evening, she and more than 500 students will gather in the city’s St Peter’s Square to protest against the lack of action on student safety. After two of her friends were spiked by a club promoter last year (the victims were the two women he gave tequila shots to), she’s calling for changes that don’t just involve giving more power to nightclub staff. “Often [staff] are the problem,” she points out, listing possible solutions instead: better safeguarding measures in clubs, drug amnesty boxes on nightclub doors, free regular night buses, on-call paramedics and a 24-hour helpline for victims. 

So what else can be done? Marchant says she hopes more venues will start frisking clubbers on entry. “It’s taking people longer to get in but it’s worth it,” says Jimmy Allen’s manager Darryl Watson in Durham, who closed his venue on Tuesday night “as a sign of support” of the nightclub boycott. Campaigners are also calling for greater prison sentences for offenders, clubs to share CCTV footage after incidents and venue staff to wear bodycams

Imogen Marchant says she’ll be sticking to mixed-gender groups on nights out from now on (Imogen Marchant)
Imogen Marchant says she’ll be sticking to mixed-gender groups on nights out from now on (Imogen Marchant)

Until then, victims are being urged to keep reporting spiking incidents to police. Many say they don’t believe their reports will be investigated, but the more widespread the problem is proven to be, the greater the pressure will be on authorities to take it seriously - as this week’s boycotts and protests hope to demonstrate. 

The last year has been a frightening one for many women, says Marchant: we already carry our keys in our fists, wear flat shoes so we can run and text our friends to check they’ve got home OK - we don’t want to add “wear thicker clothing” to that list, she says, somberly. As students gather across the country ahead of tonight’s boycott, there’s ultimately one thing they’re asking for: the right to feel safe. 

Watch: Mother warns of drink spiking danger after posting video of daughter, 18, in hospital unable to walk or speak

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