Drink-spiking: a morality tale for our times

Despite a dearth of evidence, the authorities are still promoting scare stories about the dangers of being 'spiked' and raped. Why?

Josie Appleton

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Topics Politics

Drink-spiking awareness campaigns have become an established part of the pre-Christmas period. It’s normally around early December that police forces, student unions and campaign organisations start to warn revellers about the poisons that others could be slipping into their festive drinks.

This year, a study by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) tried to get in first – with evidence that drink-spiking is largely a myth. Researchers examined 120 cases of alleged drug-assisted assault, and found not a single trace of the notorious ‘date-rape’ drug Rohypnol. They found Gamma Hydroxybutyrate (GHB), the other drug often mentioned, in only two cases.

Most of those who claimed to have been drug-raped were just plain drunk, with half also showing traces of another drug in their systems, such as ecstasy or cocaine.

This isn’t really news. The head of the study, Detective Chief Superintendent David Gee, told me a year ago that his researchers had found no cases involving Rohypnol, and that the drink-spiking phenomenon had been hugely exaggerated (see Drink-spiking scare: shots of anxiety, by Josie Appleton).

There has never been any evidence for drink-spiking. Yet search the internet and you will find the same authoritative message: that Rohypnol and GHB are the main drink-spiking drugs; that it happens to men as well as women; that there are at least 800 cases a year. There is standard advice, too: keep your drink in your hand, and hold your thumb over the opening if you are drinking from a bottle; never accept a drink from anyone you don’t know; never share or exchange drinks; keep an eye on your friends.

We read this wisdom from such established organisations as NHS Direct and local police forces. A whole industry has grown up to combat the drink-spiking threat. Partygoers are spoilt for choice by the variety of drink stoppers – from Safeflo, which is ‘currently endorsed by Crimestoppers’, to the Alcotop with a ‘snap-fit lid’, to the foil ‘Spanky’ that folds over the neck of the bottle. Other companies offer drug detector kits, so you can test before you swig.

Where did all this come from? There is one small but vocal campaign group, the Roofie Foundation, which has been awareness-raising on this issue for a number of years. Yet this doesn’t explain the transformation from urban myth to official fact.

Drink-spiking has always been a morality tale first and foremost. ‘Who could be watching your drink?’, the campaigns ask. These send the poisonous message that you always have to be on your guard; that you should trust nobody; that the person who offers you a drink could really be out to get you. These campaigns tap into and amplify popular fears.

All of this takes the Christmas spirit out of things. Letting yourself go in the party season apparently means putting yourself and others at risk. Convivial and uninhibited interaction gets redefined as a health hazard.

The progress of the drink-spiking scare has been helped by the fact that, without drug detector kits, it is difficult to prove or disprove either way. Rohypnol is colourless, odourless, and causes such unusual symptoms as dizziness, difficulty with walking, and confusion or feelings of disorientation. It’s not hard to see how the natural self-delusion after a night out predisposes some to conclude that they have been drink-spiked.

Would that this latest study stopped the scare in its tracks, but that seems unlikely. Just as the ACPO reported the results of its study, Wiltshire Police announced that ‘Having your drink spiked could result in you being sexually assaulted, robbed or becoming the victim of ID theft’. The force admits that cases of drink-spiking are rare, but still ‘warns people drinking in pubs and clubs to be vigilant’.

Indeed, the ACPO report itself warned of the dangers of drink-spiking…with alcohol. It also called for more sophisticated tests for Rohypnol, which can disappear from the system quite quickly. The Roofie Foundation was undeterred: ‘We know that people don’t report drug-assisted rapes, as the Home Office has acknowledged. We are contacted by 800 people a year, and we can’t quantify the number who don’t contact us.’ The fact that we can’t detect drink-spiking gets taken as evidence for its sure existence.

We will certainly have to stay vigilant about dodgy awareness-raising campaigns this Christmas.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club.

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Topics Politics

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