As Dutch police make their first arrest possibly connected to the so-called ‘needle-spiking’ phenomenon, Lauren Comiteau tries to separate fact from fiction.
Twenty-year-old Amsterdam college student Lily (not her real name) was recently at Amsterdam club Air, dancing to electro beats and throwing back a couple of drinks. ‘I know my limits and when I’ve gone too far,’ she says. ‘I’m an experienced drinker! But this time was different. I felt dizzy. Some parts of the evening became a blur, and I even threw up, something I don’t normally do.’
She called a friend to pick her up, not trusting herself to make it home. ‘I thought maybe I drank too much and didn’t think much about it. Three days later, I randomly found a mark on my leg. I’m not sure if it’s a prick. But it’s quite a coincidence—everything was blurry and then I found this mark on my leg. I have never experienced being so wiped out before.’
With a few days having passed, Lily didn’t report the incident to the police or go to her doctor. ‘I just want to forget about it,’ she says.
Lily’s story is familiar in Dutch cites from Amsterdam to Alkmaar, Venlo to Groningen, where between 20 and 40 cases of alleged ‘needle spiking’ have been reported in recent months.
France and Belgium and the UK have also seen a rash of reports. But with little evidence and even less data, authorities are wondering if it’s just the latest incarnation of a century-old, popular urban legend instead of a new clubbing craze expanding on the better-known drink spiking phenomenon.
‘We take every report seriously, but we haven’t found one single piece of evidence of needle spiking,’ says Rob van der Veen, spokesman for the Amsterdam police, which has received five reported needle-spiking cases since November. ‘If I spike you with a needle, you turn your head and look at the spot where the pain is. If you want to use a syringe to put something in someone’s body, someone will see. No one has seen anything. Not one person. If there’s no proof, we can’t say it happened.’
‘That’s why no one goes to the police,’ says Emma P, a 19-year-old friend of Lily’s. ‘If they don’t have evidence, why would they? I know a girl who was sexually assaulted and didn’t report it. The rapist will get maximum two years and she’ll be looking over her shoulder for the rest of her life. The police are not always the solution.’
Researcher Ruben van Beek of the research institute Trimbos says spiking victims, too, often don’t report incidents to police because they think the culprit won’t get caught. ‘Under reporting is likely huge with these incidents,’ he says
The medical expert
‘I think you can be pricked and not feel it, especially when you’re in a noisy bar, distracted and drinking,’ says anaesthetist Frank Huygen of Rotterdam’s Erasmus MC teaching hospital.
While the popular date rape drug GHB seems an unlikely candidate because it’s gummy and needs to be injected with a thick needle, Huygen says there are other anaesthetics that could be quickly and surreptitiously injected into a person that would have similar effects. ‘It’s absolutely plausible. I can imagine candidates, but I don’t want to give people ideas!’
Where’s the proof?
The problem is, proof is hard to come by. In the UK, which had more than 1,300 needle spiking reports last autumn, officials say there is still no hard evidence. The same is true in Belgium and the Netherlands. Even with the recent arrest of a possible needle-spiking suspect at a festival in The Hague — the country’s first — police are not convinced.
‘A man was arrested with one or two needles, but it may not be needle spiking,’ says Dutch police spokeswoman Helma Huyzing. ‘He could be a drug addict at a festival. Some people said he did it, but we don’t know. He was arrested for having needles. Why would you bring needles to a festival?’ That investigation is ongoing
‘It’s hard to say it’s not happening, but the evidence is saying it’s rare and hard to execute,’ says Trimbos’ Van Beek. ‘There’s so little data to base a conclusion on.’
Van Beek says with spiking, people often mis-attribute their symptoms to drugs rather than alcohol. He also says it’s striking that seven months after the spiking outcry in the UK, reporting incidents have stopped. ‘Did the needle spikers just stop, too?’
He says the lack of reports of victims passing out or ending up comatose from adverse alcohol and drug interactions suggests that spiking is not happening on a large scale. ‘People screw up all sorts of things,’ he says. ‘With 1,300 cases reported, you’d think some spiker somewhere would have messed up.’
There’s also the discrepancy between spiking and the lack of police reports of sexual assault and robbery. ‘If you spike someone, you have the intention to rob them or take advantage of them sexually,’ says Amsterdam police spokesman Van der Veen. ‘Why spike if you don’t do that?’
Show me the data
‘We need data,’ says van Beek. ‘The lack of it makes some people think nothing is happening while others think lots is going on.’
Without evidence, folklorist Peter Burger, who studies stories, rumours and urban legends at the University of Leiden, has an alternative explanation.
‘This is a more extreme version of the drink-spiking story, in which people have been arrested and convicted,’ he says. ‘People use too much alcohol and drugs. They experience unexpected effects that are horrifying and confusing. They have this really good, ready-made and very useful story offered to them. It can’t be proved or disproved. It’s a recurring story, and it will live on.’
Spiking through the ages
Indeed, reports were rampant in New York in 1913 about women theatre goers being injected with poison. New York City subway riders told a version of the spiking story in the early days of HIV in the 1990s, when they reported being pricked with what they said were infected needles.
‘Many of the narratives were used as warning stories in the early days, especially when women going to the cinema alone was a new phenomenon,’ says Burger. ‘Now women go to bars or discotheques, but the warning is: look out for your friends.’ In most court cases of drink-spiking, he adds, the perpetrator knows the victim.
‘The spiking story comes back every four to five years,’ says Van Beek. ‘It’s a big story, then it dies down, but it has no relation to any data.’ Trimbos plans to include needle spiking in its next nightlife study, but that is still a year or two away.
Police say media exacerbate the phenomenon, with reports of spiking incidents increasing after news stories on the subject. Whatever the reason, the stories are reaching a wider audience. ‘One hundred ago, women told stories and they appeared in The New York Times and other newspapers. Now they’re circulating on social media. They are shared by any means available,’ says Burger.
Caroline Franssen, chair of the feminist organisation Voorzij, offers another possible explanation for the phenomenon. ‘I think in general people think women are hysterical,’ she says. ‘Women are rarely taken seriously.’
Although she says police are taking needle spiking seriously, she thinks bar owners especially should do more to protect women and girls, who are overwhelmingly the jabbing targets. ‘There are currently not enough personnel in bars and discotheques,’ she says. ‘But they need to keep an eye on men who behave suspiciously. Owners are responsible for customers, not the other way around. But they only put the responsibility on customers when they’re women.’
The ministry of justice and security, which will send a letter to parliament in the coming weeks about how to deal with needle spiking, is advising people who think they have been jabbed to report to police.
The authorities are also advising people who think they’ve been pricked to immediately seek medical attention, not least because doctors can test for traces of drugs before they disappear from the body.
Young people, meanwhile, continue to socialise. ‘My friends and I joke about wearing leather or six layers of clothing and that it’s better to get sick from heat frustration than a prick,’ says Emma P.
As a bartender at clubs, including the Paradiso concert hall, she’s not nervous. ‘I’m behind the bar, and the bodyguards have our backs. But when I go out to clubs for fun, there are certain ones I won’t go to. They have a reputation. I do think needle spiking is happening, but not as much as people are saying.’
The police meanwhile, have said again that there is no evidence anything is happening at all.
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