SCAN Investigates: drink-spiking

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An investigation into Lancaster University students’ experiences of drink-spiking during their time here has uncovered a worrying culture of silence.

Following reports of drink-spiking incidents posted on a Lancaster University student-run social media page, more than 500 students volunteered information in a SCAN investigation concerning students’ experiences of drink-spiking and their awareness of how to prevent it. One quarter of all respondents said that they had experienced drink-spiking whilst on a night out, either as victims or as members of a group in which someone fell victim to the offence. The worst-affected demographic, according to this investigation, appears to be female first-year undergraduates.

It is important to stress that, of the 133 incidents of spiking represented in the data collected by SCAN, all but nine occurred off-campus. Furthermore, it would be inaccurate to report that the results obtained are wholly representative of the situation at Lancaster University. As Students’ Union Vice President (Equality, Welfare and Diversity) Rosalia O’Reilly explained, “The people answering will be the people who have been spiked or know someone who has.” As such, the percentage of respondents with experience of drink-spiking may not translate to an equivalent percentage of the overall university population.

However, the data do show a worrying tendency for those affected by spiking incidents not to report their experiences to the authorities. Of the 133 incidents recorded in the survey, only six had been reported to the police. Only one respondent answered that their report had been “satisfactorily resolved” by the police.

This report rate was identified by O’Reilly as a principle concern that she is keen to tackle. Whilst optimistic that “we don’t have a massive problem [with spiking] in the Sugarhouse,” O’Reilly nevertheless is realistic about the impact of unreported incidents on the authorities’ perceptions of the problem. She candidly summarised the issue as follows:

“I have heard about spiking incidents in the past in Lancaster, but I don’t know that it’s a massive issue […] It’s really hard to tell, so it’s a good thing that SCAN is doing the survey.”

A recurrent concern amongst participants in the survey was whether they would be believed if they did report a suspected incident. Many believed there to be “no point” in reporting a suspected crime, either because they felt that they themselves would be blamed “for not watching [the] drink properly” or because they were unsure of the specifics of their experience and deemed the offence “impossible to prove.”

It would seem that many do not have confidence in the ability of the criminal justice system to apprehend the perpetrators and secure their convictions, given the uncertainties associated with alcohol and drink-spiking. Often, students may only realise that they have been spiked long after the incident has occurred – in some cases this may be the following morning when the after-effects of a night out manifest as wildly disproportionate to the amount of alcohol known to have been consumed.

However, the issue is complicated by the difficulty an individual may have in recognising the effects of drink-spiking as distinct from those of inebriation through alcohol consumed of the individuals’ own volition, particularly when this consumption has been excessive. One response exemplified this, stating, “[I was] unsure if it was actually a spiking or if the person consumed too much alcohol at the time.” This is often accompanied by the belief that, even if the incident is reported to the police, no progress will be made as the victim will be dismissed as a “drunken student” or there will not be enough evidence to proceed. One student recalled a particularly concerning incident: “I went to A & E and didn’t feel the issue was taken seriously. They didn’t run any tests so there was no definite evidence for it to be reported to the police.”

The most common drug used in drink-spiking is alcohol itself, which means that establishing whether an offence has been committed is made more difficult, as toxicology screening will not differentiate between what was drunk intentionally and what was added without the drinker’s knowledge or consent. Data gathered by SCAN shows the most common problem identified by those experiencing drink-spiking – which in turn impacts upon the inclination to report a suspected offence – is that the uncertainty about where, when and by whom the victim was spiked. Many victims stated that they did not realise until, in their view, it was too late to report. This further highlights the need for vigilance on the part of the student and those with whom they are partying.

In recent years, the growing practice of ‘pre-drinking’ before commencing a night out in commercial venues may have exacerbated students’ risk of being spiked, since many arrive in the city centre already drunk. Even if they do not think themselves in any way compromised, some students may have already consumed enough to put them at risk of spiking through a decreased degree of vigilance around their drinks, or a greater propensity to take risks they would not take when sober. Police and health authorities recommend that those on a night out avoid becoming so drunk that they are unaware of their surroundings, since this leaves them especially vulnerable to being spiked. This vulnerability is only compounded by such an individual’s inability to recognise the changes in their physical and cognitive states that would occur with drink-spiking.

Fortunately, many students who took part in SCAN’s research said that they were aware of campaigns such as Easy Tiger, and had been given safety aids such as Spikey bottle-stoppers in the past. Yet O’Reilly acknowledged that, despite the best efforts of awareness campaigns, most people who habitually drink to excess are likely to continue to do so irrespective of their knowledge of potential risks.

“If people want to go out and get drunk, they are going to go out and get drunk. It’s just sad that people think that that’s a good time,” she said.

Instead, she argued, the focus must be on limiting the risks to which you are exposed, along with the fact that adding alcohol to a friend’s drink – even without any malicious intent – is still a crime.

Previous LUSU campaigns that have proved to be the most successful are those which focus on helping students to retain some degree of how much they are drinking without telling them to stop altogether or giving them lists of safety tips of which they are already aware. Freshers’ Week saw EWD campaigners hand out Easy Tiger glasses marked with unit measures, which O’Reilly described as a positive way to show people how they can keep an eye on how much they are drinking without telling them, “Don’t drink!”

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