Drink-Spiking Victims Are Being Failed by Police and NHS

After a recent surge in reports of drink and needle spiking across UK cities, VICE World News found a stark lack of protocol and support for those who suspect they have been attacked.
Photo: Emily Macinnes/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Victims of suspected drink-spiking in UK bars and clubs say they’re getting little support from police and hospitals, often to the point where it’s too late to be properly screened.

With reports of drink-spiking and spiking with needles surging across the UK, VICE World News spoke to victims, policy experts and medical professionals and found an inadequate system where alleged victims are being “let down” by authorities.  


As of Wednesday, UK police forces had recorded 198 confirmed reports of drink-spiking in September and October, as well as 56 incidents in which victims reported fearing that they had been spiked via injection. 

Ongoing investigations are probing the veracity and scale of such injections, which had not been seen by forces before. In most of these cases, police said victims were not subjected to any secondary crimes such as sexual assault or robbery.

In the meantime, viral social media posts have prompted club boycotts and demands for taking clubbers’ safety more seriously, with protests taking place across the country, with more expected this weekend and next month. 

But victims of both general and suspected injection spiking incidents told VICE World News that they have often found themselves ferried between hospitals and police stations, receiving little support and crucially not having their urine or blood screened in the short window of time before any drug would leave their system. 

A London woman who accompanied her 21-year-old friend to hospital after they believed she was drink-spiked in Mayfair, and who prefers to remain anonymous as she’s still processing the crime, told VICE World News that the first hospital they went to, Kings College Hospital, said they were unable to do the toxicology tests required. “So we went home and called 111, waited to speak to a doctor who referred us to a different hospital’s A&E. We went there and they told us again that they don’t do it.” 


“It was just us getting sent round in circles. The police advised her to go to the hospital, and then the hospital advised her to speak to the police,” she said. The police officers they first spoke to were “good”, she noted, but her friend “hasn’t heard from them in ages even though they still have her dress from that night.”

Neither hospital – Kings College Hospital, nor Guy’s and St. Thomas’, the second hospital the women were sent to – responded to requests from VICE World News about their policy on victims reporting spiking at A&E, and whether they signpost people to relevant services. 

Drug screenings need to happen as soon as possible to detect traces of substances in victims’ systems, said Jim Campbell OBE, a former Home Office forensic scientist. He believes victims are being screened too slowly. “There is no communication between them [hospitals and police] at all with this. It’s important to act quickly.

“The police don’t really want to know unless they can convict someone. They need hard evidence. And healthcare professionals want to keep people safe, and so if they are mildly under influence but not ill, there’s no case either.”

He added that it is mainly the role of police to ensure that drug screenings take place, as most clinical labs in hospitals use automated machinery that look only for particular substances. But he’s skeptical that police always pursue screenings. “If there’s no crime to report, then they don’t want to get involved because of the statistics. They don’t like any statistic where it’s ‘crime reported, crime unsolved.”


Reports of drink-spiking in the UK end in extremely low conviction rates. In 2018 in Scotland, where a number of recent spiking reports were logged, police forces released figures revealing that there hadn’t been a single spiking conviction in the last five years. Data from Avon and Somerset police suggests that there have been 486 reported drink-spiking incidents since 2016, but no convictions, despite 27 arrests. 

Adam Waugh, a core team member of PsyCare UK, a drug welfare and harm reduction charity, has been trying to fact-check social media posts about spiking to understand what happens when it’s reported. “What has been consistent in many of the women’s stories is that they feel let down by the authorities. They have often been passed between their GP, hospital or the police, with nobody taking responsibility for investigating. Or they have found themselves waiting ten hours or more in hospital, without anyone investigating, so have understandably left. Given time is of the essence in obtaining toxicology, it is concerning to see people who have been left in limbo for days.”

Zara Owen told VICE World News she had the same experience after she was spiked with what she believes was a needle earlier this month in Nottingham. She could not obtain a urine or blood sample and lost the opportunity to be screened because her GP and her hospital kept passing her back and forth. 


Last week a spokesperson for QMC Hospital in Nottingham, where Owen waited eight hours in A&E before having to leave untreated, told VICE World News: “We’ve had a small number, a handful of people who believed they have been spiked come to A&E in the last month. If we’re told it’s a needle injury, then we treat this the same as a needle-stick injury and will do basic first aid and also offer a blood test to check for viruses, such as HIV. When someone comes into hospital and says they’ve been spiked, we encourage them to report it to the police. We can report it for them, but we need their permission to do this.”

Waugh said the Home Office was given guidance on how to deal with drink-spiking 14 years ago but has so far failed to act. “The Advisory Council for Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) wrote in 2007 recommending the importance of obtaining samples quickly in cases of suspected spiking. The issue isn’t a lack of guidance on the matter, it’s that it hasn’t been followed through.”

A request in the ACMD letter that the Department of Health arranges for “early evidence kits” and appropriate advice on their use to be made available in all A&E departments also seems to have been ignored.

For Campbell, the failings run deeper than poor standardised protocol at hospitals and police forces. Studies have shown that the vast majority of drink-spiking is carried out with alcohol, not illicit drugs such as GHB. But he said that drug testing, even when carried out in time, doesn’t always look for drugs used to spike people, such as GHB.


Also, police screenings are designed to spot signs of people’s frequent drug use – at concentration levels much greater than they’d find in a victim of a one-time drug-assisted assault. Only a two-stage, more costly drug screening would realistically spot traces in a victim’s system – and Campbell thinks the police often do not pursue that and may close the case if the first stage shows no drugs. 

“What seems to happen is people come round, they feel terrible, they can’t remember what happened, they start getting worried about ‘How did I get here?’. I think several hours will elapse anyway before people take action and they’ll go to the toilet, get rid of urine contaminated with the drug, and by the time they can get a urine sample with evidence, the traces of what was used would not be present. Which is why you need this more-intense method,” said Campbell. 

In VICE World News’ coverage last week, drugs and medicine experts confirmed that a very particular set of criteria would need to be fulfilled for injection devices to work in spiking, including technical training, high pain thresholds and access to possibly unconventional drugs or substances as well as specific parts of the body on the victim, adding that it would be a far more difficult and riskier method than drink-spiking. 


Campbell agrees that spiking injections are unlikely, at least on the wide scale that is being portrayed, but he says if it is happening, spiking may not be the biggest danger. “You’ve got to put the needle in, then press the plunger, then make sure there’s no air in the syringe - air can go to the brain and it can kill you.” He adds that the perpetrator likely wouldn’t know the dose nor medical conditions of the victim. 

Our analysis found a clear lack of public health information and crime data about spiking. Despite the fact there were more than 2,600 reports of drink-spiking cases in England and Wales between 2015 and 2018, a doubling on previous years, the NHS website has no page for drink-spiking. Members of the public concerned about symptoms or changes to their health or cognitive ability will find zero information on the country’s most trusted health website. 

When VICE World News asked why there is no page, the NHS responded: “We are currently exploring whether it would be beneficial to have content related to drink-spiking on”

The Home Office has no specific tool for recording drink-spiking. It does not hold a specific “crime code” for the offence. Instead, it has a “principal offence rule”, meaning that the most serious offence is recorded. If no more serious offence, such as rape, is committed further to the spiking, there’s a variety of codes it could be logged under, which poses a challenge for data collectors trying to understand how widespread spiking actually is. 


In order to find out how many people might have been spiked, government information officers have to do keyword searches in an attempt to find them all in the system, like “lacing” or “spiking”, meaning that if the spiking element isn’t correctly described, or documented at all if the police don’t believe a crime has taken place, it might not pop up. 

Historically, drink-spiking has been linked to sexual assaults, and this is one of the major causes of fear for people going out to have fun. In a statement, Rape Crisis England and Wales said: “The recent surge in reports of spiking has highlighted the lack of effective processes to support those who have been impacted by this crime. It’s evident that more can be done to raise awareness of spiking and a more concerted effort is needed to ensure information is available for those that need it.”

“We know that this is an issue that disproportionately affects women, and yet there is little dialogue from agencies on the misogyny that underpins it. The reality is that many women now feel vulnerable and unsafe to go out: this is unacceptable.”

Police can refer spiking victims who believe they have been sexually assaulted to get tested at labs located in Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs). But given that most of the recent spiking injection victims have not reported sexual assault, the labs at SARCS are not being utilised.


Campbell said there are other motives for spiking outside of sexual assault. “I’ve heard of cases with [spiked] people having money taken out of their account because they divulged numbers or were led to a cash machine. I think people use it to get back at somebody, too.”

Clubs have also been criticised for not supporting victims effectively, nor conducting thorough enough searches of individuals as they enter clubs. This week the biggest operator of clubs in the UK announced several new measures in response to concerns, including anti-spiking bottle stoppers, protective drink covers and free drug-testing kits, as well as full-body searches on entry.

Social media posts continue to go viral as police investigate claims. The National AIDS Trust has been pushing out posts themselves in an attempt to debunk misinformation that some women have developed HIV from needle spiking, and pointing out that such fake news contributes to HIV stigma. 

Those who work directly with spiking victims ask that police and healthcare take the current surge in reports seriously. Helena Conibear, CEO of the Alcohol Education Trust, said: “In our 11 years of supporting teenagers and young adults across the country, drink-spiking has always been an issue, but one that is rarely reported to police and medics.”

“Where victims had reported spiking to police and A&E, they often felt that they were blamed, as in some cases they had drunk a lot of alcohol but were very clear that the symptoms they were experiencing were not from excess alcohol alone. Very rarely have they been successful in getting a blood or urine sample taken.” 

Whatever the truth about needles being used to drug people, experts hope that the increased pressure young people – especially women – are exerting on the authorities and drinking venues to deal with drink-spiking will spark action rather than words.