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Talking about drink spiking

“Drink spiking … date rape … club drugs …” all form the basis of sensational headlines but how widespread are these problems really?  Do we need to be concerned for ourselves and our kids?

Paul Dillon* has been working in the area of drug education for the past 25 years and believes drink spiking and associated date rape claims are very much in the public consciousness but he says the real story is rarely portrayed in the mainstream media.

Drugs are rarely used in drink spiking

“Whatever you write I will receive hate mail so let me clarify my stance on this. The problem we have is that there is limited data [on the prevalence of drink spiking] but in the vast majority of reported incidents no drug was found,” he says.

Nonetheless, Dillon is quick to point out that anyone who claims their drink was spiked needs to be treated seriously.

“If somebody believes their drink has been spiked then that person has been through a traumatic experience and should be treated with dignity and respect. You can’t turn around and just dismiss their claims, but at the same time we need to remember that so many factors come into play when drinking alcohol and it can affect us in different ways on different days for a variety of reasons.”

Complicating the issue further are the limitations with drug detection and toxicology tests which as Dillon explains, is a situation fraught with frustration. “If the test does not come back positive it doesn’t necessarily mean there was no drug involved because we are only testing for certain drugs,” he says, citing one incident where spiking involved an epilepsy medication.  “There’s just no way anyone would have thought to test for that particular drug,” he reasons.

Drink spiking more likely to be a prank

To put it all into perspective, the most common form of drinking spiking, he says, is far removed from the headline grabbing drug facilitated sexual assault (DFSA) type, explaining that DFSA is a very limited threat but drink spiking performed as a prank is the one to watch for even though it’s often done without intent to cause harm.

“I was talking to these 17 year-old guys the other day and they couldn’t believe that secretly topping up somebody’s drink with extra shots was a form of drink spiking and not only wrong but illegal. Their reasoning was that their mate wanted to get drunk anyway so they were simply trying to help him on his way,” he says incredulously.

And perhaps this illustrates the real problem of drink spiking. It’s not necessarily a sinister attempt to drug someone for the purposes of rape or robbery, it appears to be more a case of a prank gone wrong, and mostly these pranks are not happening in a public place.

Still, stories abound of date rape drugs being surreptitiously dropped into victims’ drinks by strangers loitering around pubs and clubs.  But as Dillon explains, this is far from reality.

Most people know their drink spiker

“Every bit of data we have indicates drink spiking occurs in homes and house parties, not at clubs and pubs by strangers.  If you are going to knock somebody out, how are you going to do it at a club and get them out of the place without anybody noticing?  It’s just doesn’t happen.  Sure, we certainly see images of young women falling all over the floor drunk and staggering around but usually it’s other girls who looking after them. I would like to think that if you saw a girl in a bad way being carried out by some guy then you would do something about it.  At least I hope you would.”

Dillon isn’t the only one sceptical about the widespread reporting of drug-based drink spiking although it should be pointed out that his views are by no means universal.  Nonetheless, in a paper published in the British Journal of Criminology, 2009 the lead author writes “… routinised DFSA is improbable as a widespread crime; it involves a stranger extracting an individual from her social group unnoticed, administering a substance undetected, precisely controlling drug effects, and reliably erasing memory of the experience.”

An unlikely scenario indeed but it does beg the question – where are all the drink spiking stories coming from?  And what’s prompting the media to continually run articles on the subject?

Alcohol is the problem not drugs

While Dillon is loath to target the alcohol and hotel industries for broadcasting misinformation, he says that their fallback line blaming spiking and drugs on violence and injuries within their establishments, “is a great way of saying it has nothing to do with alcohol”.

“You’ve got to remember the alcohol industry loves drink spiking stories because it lets them off the hook.  Just look at what’s happening in Kings Cross right now. They are blaming the problems there on drugs not alcohol and they are at pains to push that line.”

Tips to minimise the risk

So, the facts according to Dillon are as follows: Drink spiking is most likely to be carried out in your own home by someone you know. The second point he makes it that alcohol is the drug most likely to be used and that if drugs are used in drink spiking, it’s a fallacy they are tasteless and odourless.

“If your drink has a strange taste, feel gritty or you’re just not sure – stop drinking!” he warns.  “Tell your friends about your concern and remember that a drink spiker is less likely to target a sober person – you are at greater risk if you have been drinking alcohol!”

*Paul Dillon is the founder of Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia

Fast facts:

The drugs regarded as ‘date rape’ drugs are:

• Rohypnol
• Ketamine
• GHB (gammahydroxybutyrate)
• Other benzodiazepines


This article was first published on itsmyhealth.com.au on 28 September, 2012. See here for the original article.

Amanda Davey

Amanda is the editor of 6minutes, a daily online publication for doctors and allied health professionals. With 25 years experience in the print and online media, Amanda has worked as a columnist, business journalist, lifestyle editor, motoring reviewer and food critic but her primary interest is in health and social issues. She has also held roles in marketing communications and advertising, and has worked in state politics a researcher and speechwriter.

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