Spiking in Oxford: An Investigation
by Anna Dowell | March 14, 2022
It was one of my first nights clubbing in Oxford and my friend had gone missing. Apparently she had accepted a drink from someone in the club, though she can’t remember that now: “my last memory was from the bus stop – I don’t remember any of the club at all. [I woke up and] I had a group of six people sitting and standing around me. I had no idea what was happening.” When the ambulance arrived, paramedics said she had likely been spiked, but the hospital would refuse to test her for what she had been given. The next morning, I went with her to the police station to give a report, but the officers told us they couldn’t test for drugs either. Months later, when they found that the CCTV footage from that night had been overwritten, they closed her case.
I have interviewed students who believe they have been spiked and I have found that my disturbing introduction to Oxford nightlife is not unique. It has also become clear that spiking is barely acknowledged within the legal system, and that police policy avoids its investigation. There is confusion amongst all frontline agencies in their responses to spiking; to one victim a member of the police incorrectly claimed that “there has never been a confirmed case of spiking amongst Thames Valley police.”
For one individual, “it was the first or second week of Michaelmas. I was a fresher. We went to the club – and then my memory just kind of goes blank. They found me in the smoking area pinned under a random boy.” Other freshers had been spiked in their own college bar, or at college organised events: “I went to a [college event] at Bridge [nightclub] because it was [ticketed only for] students. I didn’t drink anything in the club, at all, and I suddenly felt like my head was very heavy. They found a little ring on my arm. So, it was an injection because I didn’t – I didn’t drink anything. I told [my friends], these guys are being very creepy. I don’t remember that. Some other friend who was drunk told my friends I was being groped. I don’t remember that as well.’ I have interviewed other students spiked at student-only events in Oxford: crew-date restaurant dinners for student sports teams, or parties at student houses. “I was in first year, and it was my first crew-date with my college sports team. It was a lot of older boys, and quite young fresher girls. I went to the toilet, and I think that must have been the point when something was put in my drink. I just don’t remember anything after that.” She was helped home by the older students who had sat beside her and “when they got to the fresher accommodation… my friend overheard them saying, ‘come on, we know we’re only here for one thing” – “they wanted to sleep with someone and that’s why they were there.”
It’s an open secret that other students are the threat. One person I interviewed made the comment, “it’s kind of ironic [that I was spiked at the house party] because I’d made a joke to my friend about the fact that the Blues rugby team were going: ‘Oh, watch me get my drink spiked’”, as if it were to be expected. One recounted an anecdote from a friend on the Varsity ski trip, “who was at Après and had her drink held out, she felt something drop into it, looked behind, and it was fizzing. So you could literally see it, but still had no idea where it had come from.” This Après Ski event is held at a bar in the Alps, accessible only via the slopes and open only to members of the trip – Oxbridge students. I have interviewed women, men, people who drank, people who didn’t, people who were alone and people surrounded by friends, in every imaginable student space. Spiking is not just a problem for the reckless or naive – this is a threat for all students in Oxford. I’ve been told that the threat of being spiked “feels like it’s lurking around every corner” because people “don’t know which public places they’re safe in and which they aren’t.” Because perpetrators are not caught and prosecuted, victims are left feeling that everyone is a threat: “I remember the day after, I felt so weird. I was walking down the street and I felt like everybody was staring at me, and I felt like every single person I saw was the person that spiked me.”
Currently the law prohibits non-consensually intoxicating somebody when done “so as to enable any person to engage in a sexual activity that involves [the victim].” Richard Graham MP, who has proposed a new bill to outlaw spiking that will have its second reading on the 18th of March, explained that “because spiking itself is not a specific crime, no one can be arrested simply for the act of spiking itself.” According to the Chair of the Home Affairs committee, “if a drink is spiked or if an injection takes place, [in order to be prosecuted] it is rolled into a different criminal offence.”  The prosecution rate for spiking cases reflects this; data released by 24 police forces out of 28 under Freedom of Information laws showed that out of 1466 reported spiking offences, there was just one charge for spiking in 2021. This gap in the law manifests in the confused response to victims of suspected spikings. Amongst the people I interviewed, a troubling pattern emerged: none had been tested to confirm whether they had been drugged. Testing was refused for victims of spiking at all the places one would expect to find it available. Many of them went to their colleges, to their general practitioner, to paramedics, to the hospital, to the police. They had injection marks, head wounds, memory loss, and various symptoms of spiking – yet still none have been tested. 
The medical response to victims of suspected spiking treats their wellbeing, but does not investigate what happened to them unless necessary for their recovery. The effects of spiking can be extremely dangerous. One victim split her head open on a sink and suffered a severe concussion. Another was nearly run over days later: “my blood pressure suddenly dropped when I was in the middle of the street. I just felt the same feeling that I couldn’t hold my head up, and a car had to stop.” Yet medical staff seem repeatedly unclear on how to respond. The NHS website lacks a unique page on drink spiking, paramedics disadvise patients going to hospital, and GP practices have admitted to quickly Googling how to respond to a spiking when victims called the practice. One victim said, “one of the nurses made a comment when I was [at the hospital] and I was telling her about it, and she said, ‘oh, how I wish I was at an age where I could go on sports socials with rugby boys.’ I was just thinking, I’ve told you that I’ve been drugged by these boys. I don’t think you mean that.” Victims who have asked repeatedly to be tested for drugs have still been refused. At first, when she had “got in line, they said, ‘we don’t test for any drugs. We can’t help you’” – she stayed only to be treated for her head wound. At the hospital, a victim with an injection wound was told “it was either Valium, or some sort of drug like Xanax” that she was injected with. The doctors were aware she had been spiked, were willing to take guesses at what might have been injected into her, but they were not willing to test her.
The police do not, in my experience, follow their own procedures in response to a suspected spiking. When I interviewed Detective Chief Inspector James Senior of the Thames Valley Police, he described there being a “very clear process on what we expect officers to do if someone presents themselves saying they’ve been spiked.” He said the police procedure is to secure urine samples to be tested within forty-eight hours, and then to store those samples in a local facility until it was decided whether to send them to a forensic laboratory. My own experience of the police response was contrary to this; the officers at the station told us they did not test for spiking so my friend would have to go to a hospital and persuade them it was medically necessary for her to have a urine sample taken and tested. DCI Senior responded with concern: “that goes against our local processes around making sure that we secure evidence locally. And we have that facility [to store samples] locally. So I’d be disappointed if there wasn’t a very, very good reason.” For most victims, advised to go to the police by the hospital and to the hospital by the police, time runs out to find someone willing to take a sample before the drugs leave their bodies.
The police policy seems to be to only pursue an investigation into a spiking case if they believe it will be successful. Only one of the eight victims that I interviewed had had a urine sample taken, and she believes this was only because her parents were medics and able to be “quite pushy with the staff.” Even in this case, absurdly, the collected sample was never forensically tested. According to DCI Senior, Thames Valley Police must follow the national policy that “there has to be some reasonable lines of inquiry that would lead us to identifying a suspect” to merit paying for a toxicology report on a sample. Critically, this requires the victim to remember the evening: DCI Senior said “we can’t identify a suspect if that person doesn’t know where they were, or who may have done it, or haven’t seen anyone or can’t remember where they bought their drink – all of that type of stuff.” Since spiking usually causes memory loss, the police have in place a criterion to merit testing for a crime which victims will not be able to meet by nature of the crime itself. The morning after, a police officer told the only victim with a sample that “the urine sample testing is a very expensive process, so they need to make absolutely sure that there is reason to suspect that [the victim] was spiked”, though DCI Senior reassured me cost “doesn’t sway the decision.” “They need empirical CCTV evidence that [she] was spiked, in order to merit doing a drug test to prove that [she] was spiked.” Apparently, were they to test all cases of suspected spiking, “the external providers won’t be able to cope with the volume that we send.”
Without a toxicology report proving they were drugged, victims cannot defend themselves against the accusation that they are inventing a crime out of a messy evening: “People have the idea that the prevalence of spiking is a free pass women can use to get out of the responsibility for getting drunk, which is obviously [messed] up.” People describe feeling the “need to justify over and over again, ‘No, I didn’t just drink too much.’ Because I think there’s the victim blaming but there’s also, ‘don’t cry spiking when you just embarrass yourself by getting too drunk.’” The reaction of their peers can be doubtful: “I’d say I think I was spiked, and they’d say, ‘Oh no, I don’t think you were. I think you probably just drank too much.’ So then you second guess yourself and then obviously the fact they wouldn’t test me at the hospital…” This means fewer people report. Were it possible to be tested in order to determine whether they were drugged, more people would come forward with their experiences.
Other authorities do not supplant these gaps in the system. The local council is responsible for supplying testing kits to bars and clubs, DCI Senior told me, yet none were in evidence at a possible spiking I witnessed within the last month. College staff respond to incidents outside college grounds with the implication that it is not their responsibility and have said that informing other students would be fear mongering. Internal university disciplinary procedures are also lacking: the sports culture in Oxford is one plagued by such predatory behaviour, but the student spiked at a crew-date found that there was no internal disciplinary procedure to level an accusation of this sort against an entire sports team in the absence of a particular perpetrator. The Oxford Student Union has no jurisdiction over nightclubs or policy in student bars, though they supply cup covers. Even the bouncers supervising the student bop at Bridge were predatory. As the girl spiked by injection was helped into a cab, she turned and one of the bouncers “calls, says something like, ‘Oh, take care’, and he winks at me.”
Between the gaps in the medical and legal systems, people are trying to piece together what has happened to them. The law sees spiking as a particular crime only when it is a means to an end that is sexual assault, so for many what happened to them is not a specific criminal offence. Yet intoxicating someone without their consent is deeply violating, and dangerous. As one victim articulated it, “something foreign entering your body is an assault, no matter what happens after. That’s what I’m afraid of.” This week there will be a second reading of the bill to outlaw the act of spiking itself; the law is needed to address the spiking rife in Oxford that is evidently being done by students to students. DCI James Senior said, “I don’t think we’re seeing the true picture [of spiking] at all”, but if currently their policy is not to confirm whether a victim was drugged when they have the facilities to, then nationally the police are looking the other way.
Richard Graham’s bill has been withdrawn. In its stead, the Minister for Policing Crime and Probation the Rt Hon Kit Malthouse MP has included a “more broadly” drafted amendment to the Police Crime and Sentencing Courts Bill. “It will require the Home Secretary to prepare a report on the nature and prevalence of spiking and to set out the steps that the Government have taken or intend to take to address it”, to return in twelve months.