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I’ve been spiked. What am I supposed to do next?
After The Mill failed to publish an investigation about a spiking in the Northern Quarter, I realised we were struggling against a bigger problem
By Mollie Simpson
Last autumn, Laura woke up on her friend’s sofa with stomach cramps and nausea. When she stood up, her legs started to shake. Every so often, her body would break out into minor convulsions. “Why am I here?” she asked.
She had turned up at a bar where her friends worked. She was acting strangely, so they took her home and let her sleep on the sofa.
Confused, Laura texted her date from the night before to ask him what happened. She describes him to me as a relatively calm, chilled person. He seemed nervous around her at first, but then he loosened up after a drink. They had met on a dating site and been messaging each other on Instagram. He had been trying to persuade her to go on a date for nearly a year, but plans always fell through. That night was the first time they met.
He explained what happened that night. Laura’s memory stops after leaving a pub in the Northern Quarter, where they had a few drinks and he sang to her on karaoke. Then, they went dancing at a club in Deansgate. Afterwards, he walked her to the bar where she met her friends, and she told him she would take the train home. There they parted ways.
But there was more. “I take it you don’t remember shagging,” he wrote in one message. According to his account, they were walking back from a club in Deansgate when she started taking off her clothes. They then had sex in a nearby car park. She was stunned. She locked her iPhone and started to cry.
The question was, what happened to make her forget all of this? “I think I’ve been spiked,” she told her sister, Lottie. She had only had four pints. The profound memory loss and how unwell she felt only seemed to indicate one thing. Lottie urged her to go to A&E, and she got her blood tested for spiking agents the next day. Nothing came up, but a nurse had warned her that might be the case after more than 24 hours.
Laura and her date spent the next few days messaging sporadically. She told him she thought she had been spiked and sent him a list of the symptoms of taking GHB, an illegal relaxant drug that loosens your inhibitions, creates euphoria and has been known to be used for drink spiking. He agreed that she was acting bizarrely and that her actions matched some of the symptoms of GHB.
He sent her a video of her dancing in a club in Deansgate with a strange man. “This guy was a bit shady,” he wrote. “Holy shit,” she wrote back. “See all of the behaviour is just so out of my character. I would NEVER just dance with some random guy in a club.”
“I’m sorry BTW,” he wrote in another message. “I feel quite bad about the situation.”
It did cross Laura’s mind that it could have been her date who spiked her. “I don’t know,” she said, when we spoke about the possibilities of who did it. In some ways, finding out who spiked her wouldn’t be a relief, it would cause more distress. If it was her date, that would mean the sex wasn’t consensual, that it was premeditated.
Her blackout created a narrative void, and Laura responded by leaning into details that she could remember. Remembering how her date fist-bumped the bouncer on his way into the pub, she wondered if it was possible he was colluding with the security staff to hurt her. When she was told by the police that the CCTV footage from the night couldn’t be recovered due to a software update conducted just one day after Lottie asked for the bar to hold on to the evidence, she began to ask if it was possible there was neglect, or even worse, a coverup.
Even after several visits to the pub and conversations with staff, we were never able to prove that Laura’s date knew the staff at the pub, or that the CCTV was deliberately deleted. Two senior employees at national CCTV providers told us it’s “impossible” to lose footage by a software upgrade or by accident. “Any professionally operated system wouldn’t erase footage if it was updated,” one expert told me. But this didn’t necessarily prove the pub deleted the footage on purpose. It was neglectful, definitely, but was it anything more than that?
I was told by staff that the pub in question — one of the old-fashioned boozers that still survives in the city centre — has two different CCTV systems operating, the details of which took me weeks to unravel. My reporting included numerous visits to the pub peering awkwardly at cameras and trying to note down brand names. Eventually, these visits raised suspicions.
When I came to interview the person at the pub who is responsible for the CCTV systems, he produced his phone from his pocket and showed me a picture on it.
“Is this you?”
It was a still shot of me wearing a black cap, looking up at the camera with a few punters in the background.
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Phew,” he said. “We thought we were being cased.” He explained the terminology — they feared I was doing re-con for a gang, scoping out the pub for a robbery.
What he didn’t have was any useful footage of Laura’s date. Most of that video was gone — he called the process a “hard drive reset” — and with it any chances of reconstructing what happened in the pub. Because the pub used two systems, police were able to get hold of some CCTV footage from two cameras, but they told Laura that the view was blocked.
And there was another problem, which I realised when I visited the pub during peak evening hours: the place was totally rammed. Even if we had been able to watch back the video from every camera in the pub, there is very little chance we would have seen a pill being dropped into a glass somewhere among the sea of people, if indeed that is what happened here.
I apologised to Laura and Lottie, and explained that we couldn’t publish the story. There was no evidence the pub had deleted footage on purpose, or that she had even been spiked inside that pub. Sometimes I felt as though I could have done more: surely there was something we could do, some eyewitness or a piece of CCTV footage that would show us who spiked Laura, or a staff member who would reveal why and how the CCTV was missing. But after weeks of reporting, everything came up short, so we all tried to move on.
‘It’s more about the aftermath’
A few months later, in June this year, I was on stage at a Mill event, answering questions from our paying members about stories we have worked on. Most of the night had been spent discussing our biggest hits — the stories we reported on for months and about which we published thousands of words. But then somehow the question came up: what about stories that didn’t work out? And I mentioned Laura’s story, and why we never got to publish it.
One member of the audience, a former BBC journalist, asked me — quite persistently, I felt at the time — whether there was a way we could have written it up. Had we missed out on something important?
And not long after that, I thought: maybe we had. Because what happened to Laura does illustrate something significant about the difficulties facing victims of drink spiking. She didn’t have any way of proving what had happened to her, and the night in question seemed like a terrible black hole in which she could only project a series of dark speculations.
She also found the response from Greater Manchester Police deeply unsatisfactory and she would eventually file a complaint about what she felt was a half-hearted investigation. She first reported the incident via the police’s 101 online service on the 30th of October last year, the day after her date, but officers only made contact with her on November 9th. When Lottie and her boyfriend visited the pub on November 25th, more than three weeks later, a staff member told them the police hadn’t visited yet to review the CCTV, although officers say they went on the 9th, by which time the footage had been deleted.
I asked Greater Manchester Police four times about how they investigated this incident, and they never provided a statement or an explanation. At one point, a spokesperson apologised for their lack of a response and said they were short-staffed.
I’ve heard of this kind of experience from other young women, and this part of the country — with its big university cities and nationwide reputation for nightlife — seems to have a heightened problem with drink spiking. According to the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), the North West, Sussex and the East Midlands have the highest prevalence of spikings in Britain, with incidents frequently recorded in pubs and nightclubs. I began to think more about how safe the city is, and whether spiking victims were getting the support and answers they deserve.
It turned out, Laura and Lottie had been thinking the same thing. When I was at a festival in August, Lottie wrote to me again. She wondered if I was still interested in finding out what happens with spiking cases in Manchester. She felt those stories needed telling. I spoke to my editor Sophie, and we both agreed to take another look.
What happens is, for the most part, sad and disheartening. Out of the eight women I have spoken to about this issue, none of them knew exactly what had happened to them on the nights they think they were spiked. Some chose not to report to the police at all, while others who did never got a meaningful resolution.
All of them were in their twenties and thirties, and had experience working in hospitality or studying in this city. Our interviews were open and relaxed, but we often came up against a familiar problem: I would probe a bit deeper, and it would become clear that they couldn’t answer. “How was I feeling on the night?” one woman replied. “I don’t really remember. I was just having drinks, I was chatting to people and then my memory stops.”
The account of the following days was usually crystal clear. But the night they were spiked was always in darkness. “To me, it’s more about the aftermath,” one source told me when I asked what she remembered. “Various blood tests, various conversations.”
Spiking agents have a powerful anaesthetic effect, which can cause loss of sensation and awareness. They also affect the brain’s ability to record new memories in the present, meaning for the time that the victim is intoxicated, they won’t remember anything that happens later on.
For Dr Kelly Savery, the cases where she has a patient who has been spiked and sexually assaulted are uniquely difficult. A counselling psychologist for Greater Manchester Rape Crisis, she is used to helping victims talk through their recollections with empathy and care.
Her clinical patients often struggle with memory. When one of her patients has experienced sexual assault, they will often be so traumatised they can’t recall the incident. Spiking victims experience something very similar: large gaps in memory, the sense that there’s a missing piece of the narrative. But while sexual assault victims will sometimes be able to piece bits of memory back together again, people who have been spiked always have a blank.
“All trauma memory is fragmented,” she says. “But there’s something about spiking where people have a black, and then nothingness.”
No further action
Since the end of last year, securing justice for spiking victims has been one of Greater Manchester Police’s key priorities. Superintendent James Faulkner, the tactical lead for violence against women and girls, launched a new defined strategy in response to the numerous spiking reports coming in: which involved testing blood and urine for spiking agents and securing evidence from the scene, like CCTV and eyewitness accounts. But there was a sense from our conversation that it’s also been a notable area of weakness for the force.
He says he started seeing “a deluge” of spiking reports coming in last October — the causes of which remain unclear. One obvious factor was students coming back to university, especially in cities like Manchester and Liverpool where a lot of student nightlife, for first year students especially, happens in public venues.
Another factor might have been the elevated levels of fear created by a series of media stories about “needle spiking” — the notion that young women were being literally injected by their attackers in clubs — a phenomenon about which The Mill expressed scepticism at the time and for which little to no evidence has emerged. In a brilliant podcast called Spiking: An injection of fear, journalists from the media company Tortoise concluded that “what was reported — an epidemic of spiking with needles — didn’t happen.” But the podcast raised an interesting follow-up question: what does it tell us about women’s safety that so many people believed it could be true?
According to local publicans and hospitality operators we have spoken to, they did see an increase in the number of people being spiked in their venues last year. Often those spikings seemed to be done as a form of “trolling” rather than for the purposes of sexual assault — young men putting pills in random glasses, including in the drinks of — for example — older men.
Whatever the reasons for last year’s upsurge in spiking reports, national police forces reacted, promising a focus on the issue. Faulkner says they support the victims and communicate proactively with them about the case and what they can see in the forensic analysis.
The force currently receives between 40 and 50 spiking reports every month. By comparison, West Midlands Police, who cover Birmingham, recorded 181 incidents in the first five months of 2022 — that’s roughly 36 a month. West Yorkshire Police, who cover Leeds, recorded 124 spiking incidents in January this year.
So how many of these reports result in charges and prosecutions?
“Yeah, we don’t have hundreds of cases ending up in court,” Faulkner admits. “There are some in the prosecution phase. I’d say the majority do result in no further action being taken, for various reasons.”
With blackouts rendering victims unable to give a clear account of what happened, the police tend to rely on forensic evidence, and victims rely on the police to turn up answers about what might have happened, via the testing process or from CCTV. Cocaine, ketamine, morphine derivatives like tramadol and diamorphine pills, and antidepressant drugs often show up in the results of spiking victims — the most common being ketamine, cannabis and cocaine.
The presence of these substances may tell a victim what they have been spiked with, but the presence of drugs in your system doesn’t necessarily prove a spiking took place. If they manage to catch the perpetrator, which is uncommon, and it ends up in court, a defence lawyer can look at the analysis and conclude that you couldn’t pinpoint when the drug was consumed. If the forensic sample is taken some time after the incident — which is common for victims not realising they’ve been spiked until the following day — there is more room for contamination.
‘It’s an art form in itself’
When Lottie called me in August, we talked about Prima Facie, a play which premiered in London this year, a digital version of which was shown at HOME. The play examines the ways the legal system fails women who have been assaulted, and how barristers can point out something doubtful in their stories and unravel a case from there. The protagonist is herself a successful barrister who has mastered this technique, but ends up finding herself on the other side of the courtroom. In one scene, she showers after she is sexually assaulted and then immediately berates herself: she’s just lost a crucial piece of forensic evidence. The system is stacked against her, she no longer has the upper hand she’s used to having when she’s in the courtroom.
What was telling about many of my interviews for this story was how quickly the women started to think like a barrister, too. In the absence of their own memories, they started to doubt themselves. Was it possible that their drinking alone had put them in that state, a confusion that may genuinely occur in some cases? Would there be any evidence? Was there any point retrieving CCTV or getting tested? How could their account be twisted in court?
One of the women I spoke to was a 20-year-old model called Charlotte. She was at a bar in the Northern Quarter last summer with a friend when she met a group of men who insisted on buying her drinks. After a drink and a few cigarettes, she and a friend went back to the men’s hotel for an afterparty. They offered her a white powder they told her was cocaine, but it made her feel exhausted. She smoked a joint and laid down in one of the beds to rest. The men were lying down either side of her at this point, and she felt their hands move closer. She was becoming sleepy, and she told them she wanted to fall asleep.
When she woke up, her legs were covered in bruises. She went home, and wrote everything she could remember from the night down on a piece of paper, and put her clothes in plastic bags for evidence. Then, she started to think about the reality of reporting to the police. Her memories were blurry, and she realised she might have to explain why she went back to their hotel with them, and why she accepted drugs, and admit that she was smoking weed that night.
One memory in particular troubled her. Things start to get hazy after this point, but when they were touching her, no longer listening to her protests, she remembers finally saying in a small voice: “You can just do whatever you want with me, I’m going to sleep.”
“I think that was a way of not getting myself hurt,” she explains, when we met in The Mill’s office to discuss her story. “I knew they were bigger than me, and I knew I couldn’t fight them.”
She thought about those words, and realised in a court of law, she would struggle to argue that she didn’t consent. The thought of being under cross-examination, having to defend her actions that night, was unbearable.
Hannah felt similarly sceptical about proving her case. In 2015, she was at a private party in a club on Deansgate Locks. She drank a glass of wine before she left, and she was feeling mellow but not drunk. When she got to the club and took a few sips of her rum and coke, her heart started beating faster and harder, and she suddenly felt paralytic. She reached to grab her friend for help, who was standing on a platform above her. Her friend fell, and they both crashed on the floor. Then people started screaming for help.
They helped her and her friend up, and Hannah was put in a taxi home. She woke up with an acrid taste in her mouth. She tried to think back to the previous night, but after reaching for her friend to help, her memory goes blank.
She thought about it, but in the end she didn’t ask the club for CCTV from the night. “From my point of view, it would have been a fruitless task,” she says. “It’s a subtle thing, it’s an art form in itself the way these individuals function in committing these acts.” An art form? “The whole point is they don’t get caught,” she explains. “It comes with a sense of concealment, sleuthing essentially.”
Our conversation circled back to the question of safety. “I don’t think clubs or venues are geared towards that,” she said, referring to spiking. “We think about CCTV with protecting stock and preventing robberies and the more obvious stuff like fights. CCTV isn’t designed to look after people.”
It’s well known that sexual assault prosecutions represent a tiny proportion of sexual assaults. An even smaller proportion of those prosecutions lead to a conviction — when someone is found guilty in court. Women have mostly come to accept that their rapists are unlikely to be convicted in a court of law, and the unlikelihood of ever getting justice feels — whatever the opposite of empowering is. Disempowering, perhaps.
Spikings have a particular way of making victims feel powerless, because of how additionally difficult they are to prove. People who get spiked so rarely seem to get any meaningful engagement out of the police, let alone an investigation that leads to charges. “I wouldn’t phrase it like that, because that suggests the police aren’t doing their job,” says Faulkner when I put that to him. “It’s a notoriously difficult thing to do for the reasons I’ve explained. In every case we investigate, an outcome of justice for the victim is the only thing we’re intent on achieving. We can’t always do that.”
Alex Aldridge, a PhD student researching sex, drugs and sexual ethics, sees prosecution as a limited answer to much deeper social problems. If the authorities can’t protect women from this kind of crime, the protection has to come from the other people around us. “It can’t come from above,” she says. “It has to come from us, through our relationships with our communities, with nightclubs, with drugs.”
Fundamental to the notion of changing things around spiking is the issue of society, culture, and how women fit into that. Dr Emma Davies, a member of the Global Drug Survey core research team, who conducted a massive global survey into spiking, says knowing more about offenders is essential to making changes. “I think we’re quite far away from having the full picture,” she says. “It’s probably to do with other forms of assault, power, to coerce someone into an activity. What is the motivation behind that? That is something we really want to do research on.”
‘I have to believe it, because there’s no other version to follow’
“So why did you want to do this story?” I asked everyone at the start of our interviews. I knew it would raise traumatic issues, and there would be answers we couldn’t find, so I wanted to be sure people were doing it for the right reasons. Almost everyone agreed awareness was the most important thing. “I feel like it’s been good for me to share it,” Charlotte told me, as we said goodbye. “My parents agreed it was a good idea to talk about it more.”
There are times when media coverage spreads paranoia and fear about spiking for the sake of clicks, with the needle spiking “epidemic” being a case in point. Thankfully, the risk of being spiked remains very low. But for those I spoke to who have fallen victim to this crime, I sense that their relationship with the city has changed. They analyse their behaviour in the stories they tell of the night they were spiked. They are less trusting, more cautious.
Laura now lives with her sister Lottie in south Manchester. She hasn’t returned to the pub where she was spiked, and she hasn’t been on a date ever since, because the thought of being on her own with a stranger is still too scary.
Recently, she’s been thinking about what happened. It was around a year ago that she had the worst night of her life. It still frustrates her that she never got the outcome she wanted, and that she doesn’t have the full story of what happened. She still can’t believe the CCTV disappeared.
In the final days of reporting this story, when everything that is possible to know is there and everything that is impossible to know still feels like a huge weight, I ask Laura how she feels about the not-knowing, the gaps in her memory.
“Not having any control is obviously very scary,” she tells me over text. “But also having to just trust the guy who I was on a date with’s version of the story. That’s the only version of the story I know, and it does make sense so I just have to believe it, because there’s no other version to follow.”