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Think only naive young women get their drinks spiked – think again

gemma barry
When she was 24, Barry was spiked when out for dinner and drinks with a friend: 'It left me frightened and frustrated – that whoever was responsible had got away with it'

There are 12 hours of my life that have always remained a total mystery. What began as dinner and a couple of drinks with a friend ended in my coming-to on the street in London, utterly filthy, bruised and with my eyes like saucers, with no memory of how I got there. After a passer-by volunteered to help, called my friends and put me in the back of an ambulance, I eventually realised that my drink had been spiked. It left me frightened and frustrated – that whoever was responsible had got away with it.

When it happened to me, at 24, there were no figures tracking how prevalent drink spiking is. But since the National Police Chiefs’ Council began recording incidents last year, 6,732 have been reported to the police, with drugs (such as Rohypnol or other sedative-like substances) most commonly applied to people’s drinks, or in some cases, via a needle. Many victims don’t report it, though – I never did – and the real figure is likely to be much higher. A YouGov poll found that 11 per cent of women and 6 per cent of men said they had been spiked. Another showed that four in 10 thought the police wouldn’t believe them if they did report what had happened.

Spiking is often dismissed as an issue that only affects the young and careless, but this is simply not the truth. I know a 44-year-old whose drink was targeted while she was with her teenager, and women in their 50s to whom it has happened, too; one woman died after her drink was drugged. This weekend, the journalist and broadcaster Kate McCann revealed how she had been the victim of a “brazen” spiking, even though she was with a large group of friends at the time.

Which begs the question: what are the spikers after? What data there are suggest that while sexual assault and robbery are motives, with spikers looking to take advantage of those they drug in as many as a third of cases, often spikers are simply looking to “prank” their victims, in a twisted game.

Of my friends, I’d say about 90 per cent have been spiked – and men aren’t immune, either. One friend of a friend took three sips of alcohol at a bar before almost instantly feeling faint, collapsing to the floor and losing consciousness, waking with a bouncer standing over him and not a clue what had happened. “I was totally sober, then felt faint,” he recalls. “Suddenly, my legs just buckled.”

He, like me, was shocked by the speed with which spiking drugs take effect. I’d seen that firsthand, before it ever happened to me, when a friend was spiked three years earlier. She went from being completely coherent to slumped, slurring her words and unable to stand; it was scary even to watch. I was glad to have been there to help, but it highlighted to me, too, how horrifying these situations can be for those separated from their friends when left in a fog from these drugs, forced to deal with the terrible after-effects alone.

It also showed me that while I had always taken every precaution, including always buying bottled beer to reduce the chance of someone dropping something in my drink, there’s no real way of stopping yourself becoming a target – often seemingly for no reason at all. I recall nothing about what happened when the drug took effect, but I do remember how I felt afterwards. It was a completely jarring experience, like feeling spaced, and out of your own body, which if you’ve never done drugs (as I haven’t), is like nothing you’ve ever felt before. Your worst-ever hangover doesn’t come close.

Neither my friend nor I could point to an individual on the night I was drugged who might have had a motive to spike my drink – though my brother, who’s a police officer, said there were a number of cases of bar staff spiking customers’ drinks around that time in the early Noughties.

And if you do suspect a perpetrator, it can be near impossible to bring charges against them, as the drugs leave your system within hours – sooner, in many cases, than the time it takes to be directed to someone who can test you in the first place. For those who do get tested in time and report the matter to the police, the likelihood of someone being charged or convicted is incredibly low. Freedom of information requests submitted to all UK police forces by Channel 4 showed that, among the 39 that responded, just 0.25 per cent of reported incidents led to a charge.

Laura Farris, the Conservative MP for Newbury and Under Secretary of State for Victims and Safeguarding, says that, “Spiking is now part of an MP’s weekly casework. People…  increasingly write to say this is an issue. It happens often.” In recent years, there appeared to be outbreaks of spiking (particularly with needles) on university campuses, and it’s hard to accept that in the two decades since my own awful incident, so little is still being done. We need more education around spiking and its effects, how to deal with the aftermath and serious fines for those found guilty.

I never told my parents what happened to me – I didn’t want to worry them. But I talked about it with others, including my nieces when they were in their teens, because I felt so strongly that it was something people needed to know about: it can happen so easily, out of nowhere, and is truly terrifying. We need better protection – and justice – for the many who are still wrongly being made victims.

As told to Charlotte Lytton