Needle spiking: how misinformation and fear mongering pose a challenge to harm reduction
Trigger warnings: sexual assault, spiking
The needle spiking moral panic and the misinformation surrounding it are contributing to fear mongering and a climate of social anxiety which poses a challenge to harm reduction, and does a disservice to survivors.
Published on: 08/06/2022
In recent weeks, there have been multiple reports of partygoers being spiked through needle injections, most recently in Berghainhttps://www.instagram.com/p/CeD2vwQofHz/. The phenomenon is now known as “needle spiking”. Awareness-raising infographics and twitter threads have spread like wildfire across social media, creating a panic that clubs and party organizers are noticeably struggling to address. In the midst of this commotion, Berlin’s club commission released a public service announcement about spiking in Berlin clubs.https://www.instagram.com/p/CeTvY21shN7/
First reports of this phenomenon happened in the U.K in 2021. Yet, in spite of 274 reports of “needle spiking, none of the alleged cases were confirmed.https://www.vice.com/en/article/5dgpxz/274-reports-but-zero-confirmed-cases-what-we-know-about-needle-spiking-in-the-uk On May 4th 2022, the French media Arrêt sur images reported the following:https://www.arretsurimages.net/articles/piqures-en-boite-de-nuit-les-medias-ont-oublie-de-prendre-des-gants “For a few days, the media have been reporting a large number of testimonies and complaints from people claiming to have been spiked without their knowledge during parties, with syringes containing drugs. For the moment, no syringe has been found anywhere, and no arrest has been made. So: real danger or psychosis? The British case should have made the French media more cautious. Especially since experts are very doubtful.”
Arrêt sur images reports that while testimonies of needle spiking have been documented by various French media such as BFM TV, Le Parisien, Le Monde, Radio France, and France Info, and Belgian media such as L’Avenir and De Standaard. In spite of all this investigative journalist work, the mystery remains about all the technical aspects of “needle spiking”, and most notably: which products were injected and how?
France Bleu journalist Mélanie Juvé writes that “For the time being, the mystery remains concerning the product or products that were potentially injected. No syringe could be found by the investigators and to date, all the toxicological analyses ordered by the public prosecutors of different regions have not revealed the presence of GHB.”
She continues and explains that “The phenomenon remains all the more mysterious as no perpetrator has been identified at this stage of the investigations and there are no leads envisaged concerning the motives of those responsible. In addition, the victims have generally not suffered any kind of violence or theft.”
France info radio quotes the prosecutor of Nantes, Renaud Gaudeul, who currently handles 47 opened investigations: “Today, we do not have an explanation as to what precisely this phenomenon is. We can indeed imagine that there are individuals who seek to inoculate people with toxic substances but we can also imagine that we have some individuals who wish to create a certain psychosis. There is clearly the frustration of not having been able to question any individual.”https://france3-regions.francetvinfo.fr/pays-de-la-loire/loire-atlantique/nantes/piqures-en-boites-de-nuit-a-nantes-pas-de-produits-toxiques-deceles-le-mystere-reste-entier-2497309.html
This was not the first time that rumors of stingers were spreading in France. In December 1819, the Parisian police decided to address those rumors in a newspaper. Far from allowing the arrest of a culprit, this publication only increased fears tenfold and will amplify the phenomenon.https://www.pariszigzag.fr/secret/histoire-insolite-paris/lodieux-piqueur-de-fesses-qui-terrorisait-les-parisiennes While most reporting on needle spiking has been focused on trying to establish the validity of claims of this phenomenon, we focus here on the social dynamics behind this moral panic, and replace it within the larger problem of navigating safer clubbing and harm reduction in the capitalistic dance music industry.
- Safer clubbing: more than 20 years of policy failure
In 2002, the UK government publishes a booklet called Safer Clubbing, outlining drug use harm reduction strategies for club owners.https://www.theguardian.com/drugs/Story/0,2763,663674,00.html While drug use is commonly accepted as an unavoidable aspect of nightlife, the prevalence of conservative and reactionary political views when it comes to handling drug use has led to more policing of clubgoers, rather than facilitating safe drug use in a club environment.
Capitalist greed from party promoters and club owners has led to many preventable disasters. As clubs are often only accountable for drug-related deaths which happen on their premises, throwing people out of the club, when they are clearly under the influence, has become common practice. Petitions and public outcry have mostly been left unanswered.
In 2020, Mixmag reported that a teenager died outside the Leamington Assembly venue. The venue was overcrowded, with dangerously high temperatures and patrons collapsing without any help from the security.https://mixmag.net/amp/leamington-assembly-club-death-dangerous-oversold-water-pill-ecstasy-mdma The watchdog organization Pill Report released footage of a bar staff member denying access to water to a patron. Tap water was inadequately provided “with the intention of driving up £5 bottled water sales which sold out at around 2am”.https://www.instagram.com/p/B8KA9XbFyVh/?igshid=MDJmNzVkMjY%3D Warwickshire Police investigated the incident, but the promoters were not held accountable.
In 2018, Spiegel published an article about the aftermath of the drug overdose of a woman who visited Berghain, Berlin’s most renown techno club. Her husband’s lawyer investigated whether she would have still been alive if the paramedics and the Berghain staff had acted differently. Not only Berghain’s night manager tried to convince the husband and his friend not to call the paramedics, but the police did not want to investigate who was at the door that night, writing a report with on the cover: “Suspects: 0, injured parties: 1.” Questioned by the Spiegel on the responsibility of Berghain, the head of the narcotics division of the Berlin State Office of Criminal Investigation states: “What actually happens inside the clubs is beyond our reach.”https://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/silence-surrounds-overdose-death-at-berghain-a-1198980.html
The European club scene is overall characterized by a refusal to do harm reduction towards drugs such GBL/GHB, for which the risk of overdose is quite high, especially when mixed with alcohol. Instead, club owners are invested in repression and policing. Whether it is about drug use or sexual harassment & assault, it is worth remembering that safe space policies are by design not intended to protect the interests of partygoers:
“Safe space policies are managerial strategies which aim to preserve the reputation and the liability of the institution (whether it is a club or a party), and are introduced under the false pretense of harm reduction and supporting survivors. By design, safe space policies not only fail to address the core of the problem, they also leave room for activists to be dismissed and ostracized, and for the management to ignore complaints.”https://technomaterialism.com/2021/12/16/abolish-dj-idolatry/
One can take this analysis a step further: public authorities and police enforcement fail to hold party promoters and club owners accountable as their primary role is to defend the interest of capital. As David Whitehouse puts it: “the police are a response to crowds, not to crime”, since “the role of the police is to protect capitalism”.https://socialistworker.org/blog/critical-reading/2014/12/09/main-role-police-protecting-ca
2. Needle spiking: a Rumor of Orléans?
In 1969, a rumor spread like wildfire in the French city of Orléans, and soon all across the country. According to the rumor, Jewish shop owners were kidnapping white women in changing rooms. They were allegedly drugging those women through needle injections, evacuating them through trap doors below the changing rooms, in order to bring them to a human trafficking network of tunnels below the town. According to this rumor, the “Jewish lobby” was pressuring local authorities and the media into ignoring the kidnappings.
According to a team of sociologists working under the direction of Edgar Morin, the rumor of Orléans is a moral panic which can be explained by the socio-economic context in which it originates: namely, the economic transformation of Orléans, societal changes at the time in France, and antisemitism.Edgar Morin, La Rumeur d’Orléans Orléans was at the time going through drastic economic and demographic structural changes, which changed its social fabric and destabilized what was before a provincial capital, creating an overall climate of social anxiety. The end of the 1960s were the theater of the sexual revolution, with the rise of the mini-skirt in French fashion. Changing rooms were simultaneously an attractive novelty for young women, and the target of reactionary views. Finally, France’s deeply rooted antisemitism led to beliefs that the fortunes of Orléans’ Jewish merchants was ill acquired, echoing the popular conspiracy theory that Jewish people are plotting for world domination.
The parallel with needle spiking is easy: the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russo-Ukrainian war have put Western Europe in a state of socio-economic crisis, leading to an intense level of social anxiety; with the far-right on the rise all over Europe, reactionary views permeate through culture and progressively take hold as a critique of (queer) club spaces, which are seen as the embodiment of social decadence; there is an overall crackdown on chemsex (this practice of using drugs as part of one’s sex life), which specifically targets queer people with reactionary strategies which aims to intensify criminalization rather than seek harm reduction.https://filtermag.org/ghb-uk-acmd-recommendation/https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2021/11/25/paris-veut-agir-face-a-l-essor-du-chemsex_6103588_3224.html
That so many recent cases of needle spiking are tied to queer eventshttps://www.brusselstimes.com/belgium-news/227507/first-victim-of-syringe-attack-reported-to-pride-organisationhttps://www.lalibre.be/regions/bruxelles/2022/05/23/de-nombreux-participants-victimes-de-piqures-durant-la-belgian-pride-7PDMJXH4JNBYXM2WPNX4TUYH4Y/ and spaceshttps://www.instagram.com/p/CeD2vwQofHz/https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10538293/Birminghams-Gay-Village-Student-claims-spiked-injection-night-out.html should be a bigger concern. Queer people are stereotypically assumed to be predators, and this form of queerphobia has made a worrying comeback in recent years with claims of grooming in the UShttps://www.nbcnews.com/tech/internet/lgbtq-abuse-spikes-online-fueled-intensifying-culture-war-rcna24904 and the increasing hold of trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs)https://www.vox.com/identities/2019/9/5/20840101/terfs-radical-feminists-gender-critical in European public discourse and policy.
Needle spiking additionally contributes to a climate of stigmatization for drug users,A man was arrested on May 16th in Lyon in a bar with a syringe which was for his own use. … Continue reading which is not motivated by public health concerns but by a reactionary moral imperative to stigmatize drug users. Like the rumor of Orléans, needle spiking functions as a cautionary tale for (young) partygoers who partake in recreational drug use in club scenes in which drug use is not only normalized but happens every week in social groups which implement their own harm reduction strategies and community care. And in the particular case of GHB, needle spiking casts a doubt on regular GHB users, who are overwhelmingly aware of the pitfalls of the drug and restrict it to personal consumption.
It is worth mentioning that the newest needle spiking claims gravitating are gaining traction in the media, all while safety surrounding drug use in the queer community is barely a concern. There is still a struggle to address and acknowledge the rise of meth addiction in the queer community,https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/patrickstrudwick/queer-black-latino-people-meth-recovery-blockedhttps://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/patrickstrudwick/black-latino-queer-people-trauma-meth-sex which particularly targets queer racialized people.https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/patrickstrudwick/racism-meth-sex-destroy-queer-black-lives
Overall, needle spiking is a moral panic which reflects reactionary views in handling drug use and harm reduction in nightlife. Pointing out this reactionary aspect of nightlife opens the way forward for harm reduction strategies which are not rooted in moralizing the issue, but in community care.
3. When misinformation is mistaken for harm reduction
Instead of helping grassroot organizations which aim for harm reduction, public funding are massively allocated to more “professionalized” non-profits which are in cahoots with public institutions. Such institutions have a well oiled grant application machinery, which delivers nothing but empty promises. Good examples of such institutions are Technopol In France and the Club Commission in Berlin. When the Club Commission is not raising funds for landlords,https://jeanhugueskabuiku.substack.com/p/how-berlins-clubcommissions-actions?s=w it stigmatizes drug users instead of implementing harm reduction,https://www.instagram.com/p/CVnXqscMWq4/ with a panel titled “let’s talk about “G” in Club Culture”.https://www.instagram.com/p/CWqVa_ps0Ps/
Harm reduction is about delivering factual information, not fear-mongering. The information spread through social media about GHB and GBL were just plainly wrong. When an injection is given, it is because a substance is not properly absorbed by the digestive system. This is the case for insulin. GHB does not work by injection: it is assimilated by the liver, after ingestion. Needle spiking someone with GHB would require a very large needle with a big diameter, in order to inject the equivalent of ~40ml to hope for the desired effect. This process would take more than 30 seconds, and require identifying a vein in order to inject the product directly in the targeted person’s bloodstream.
Interviewed by Vice on the topic of needle spiking, Professor Harry Sumnall, a specialist in the study of drug use, has an hypothesis which explains this new wave of needle spiking:
“I am in no way questioning the experiences of the victims, but intentional drug or alcohol use that is later regretted, or unexpected psychopharmacological effects of alcohol can be interpreted as resulting from wild stings. We often assume that alcohol produces homogeneous states of intoxication, but the same amount of alcohol can produce different effects in the same individual depending on a wide range of factors, such as the environment in which he or she is operating, medications that are being taken, menstrual cycle, and psychological state.”https://www.vice.com/en/article/5dgpxz/274-reports-but-zero-confirmed-cases-what-we-know-about-needle-spiking-in-the-uk
When it comes to GHB, sociologist and criminologist Stuart Waiton questions the motivation behind the act of drugging someone with a syringe, when it is much easier to spike their drink directly.https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10225259/Did-nightclub-needle-attacks-actually-never-happen-Criminologist-casts-doubt.html The doctor in cognitive psychology Philippe Bak, doctor in cognitive psychology, observed in La Dépêche that “An injection is not done in a second. And on the purely medical plan, to inject GHB, that cannot function”.https://www.ladepeche.fr/2022/04/28/piqures-mysterieuses-la-psychose-gagne-les-boites-de-nuit-et-les-bars-10265101.php
Concerns about HIV transmissions show how little progress has been made in properly informing the public on this topic. The risk of HIV contamination via needle injection on a dancefloor is practically non-existent, although there are documented cases of HIV contamination via used needles in specific contexts (intravenous drug use). Moreover, one of the biggest sanitary scandals, if not the biggest one for France, is the Contaminated hemophilia blood products scandal (Affaire du sang contaminé), where hemophiliacs became infected with HIV and hepatitis C. That sanitary scandal was possible because we were still finding out about the mode of infection with blood products.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1151015/
However, in the context of needle spiking, HIV is an incredibly fragile virus, which cannot survive in the open air. HIV contamination through needle spiking would require a syringe, containing fresh blood, from an untreated HIV positive person, injected blood in sufficient quantity, which goes directly into a vein. Moreover, HIV positive people with undetectable retroviral levels (which is the case of people under long term treatments for HIV) cannot transmit the virus. In other words, a process so complicated it is impossible in practice.
Additionally, these injections, beyond the pain, would leave very noticeable traces, far beyond mosquito bites or hematoma. A product like GHB injected under the skin or into the muscle would cause necrosis.
In spite of the impractical aspects of needle spiking, it seems more easy for people to believe that they have been assaulted by an unknown drug user in the club than by one of the barmen, in spite of the fact that barmen have the biggest window of opportunity when it comes to spiking. In Belgium a massive anti-spiking movement called #Balancetonbar took place during post-covid bars and clubs reopening (Autumn 2021), in reaction to a series of events in bars in Ixelles where barmen spiked drinks and sexually women patrons. An instagram accounthttps://www.instagram.com/balance_ton_bar/ collected all the anonymous testimonies, which leds to a few key Brussels’ nightlife institutions such as Fuse taking measures and getting rid of problematic barmen.https://www.7sur7.be/faits-divers/balance-ton-bar-le-fuse-arrete-la-collaboration-avec-les-employes-impliques~a908e367/ The belgian nightlife debate was at that point becoming really healthy, questioning some problematic authority figures who acted in the scene with impunity for ages (sometimes 30 years) https://bx1.be/categories/news/carl-de-moncharline-temporairement-ecarte-du-bar-limperial/. The needle spiking stories then arrived and confused the debate, shifting the focus to some unknown bar/club patrons instead of clearly identified barmen and club owners.
A 15 year old teenager was falsely accused of needle spiking on TikTok, after being filmed while helping out a teenage girl who just fainted at the festival “We R Young” in Hasselt (Belgium). Twenty-two attendees fainted during the event, with a substantial number of them saying they “felt a needle”, forcing the organizers to shut down the events.https://www.lesoir.be/444687/article/2022-05-26/flandre-le-festival-we-r-young-arrete-apres-22-cas-suspectes-de-piqures-sauvages … Continue reading This incident exemplifies that social media reactions to needle spiking tend not to be rooted in harm reduction but instead boil down to an incredibly toxic form of mob mentality.
Needle spiking is anchored in a long history of needle-themed moral panics, dating back as far as the 19th century. It is not surprising to see its resurgence after the rise of reactionary attitudes towards mass vaccination. Additionally, we live in unprecedented times of social changes, with a cultural war being waged against the queer community.https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2022/05/20/lgbtq-progress/
Fear mongering about drug use (GHB and GBL particularly) and HIV infection do not contribute to safer clubbing. When questioned by Technomaterialism about their harm reduction strategy, one of Paris-based queer party promoter mentioned to us that a medically trained person is present at every single of their events, in order to provide first aid and assess the situation.
And as it is not said enough: not only living with HIV is no longer a fatality, but undetectable = untransmittable. People who are HIV positive cannot sexually transmit the virus to others, whenever they have an undetectable viral load (that is, an undetectable amount of HIV in their blood).
Stigmatization and policing are reactionary answers to drug use, which do not contribute to harm reduction. Club security staff, especially bouncers, have a responsibility in this crisis. Can safer clubbing even happen in spaces managed by staff members who have a monopoly on violence, just like law enforcements? Bouncers cruelly lack first aid training because by design their role is to defend the interest of the capital (the club owner) rather than the people. They are vigilanteElsa Dorlin, Se Défendre with a monopoly on violence, which is put to work to further undermine, humiliate and assault minoritized clubgoers.https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/14/arts/music/berlin-club-bouncers.html To put it plainly, when it comes to drug use, the role of the security staff is to ensure that nobody overdoses on the premises, as this would potentially engage the club’s liability. This is why a club such as Berghain would rather throw people out when they are unwell than care for them.
Right now, hundreds of judicial investigations have been opened. Doctors are applying the precautionary principle and reporting the victim statements to the relevant authorities. Fake news being shared across social media and the general anxious climate of the still-ongoing COVID-19 pandemic can only contribute to making the situation worse. The first thing to do is to keep ourselves informed by specialists, who often have well-documented websites and a free helpline.
Finally, it is time for the European dance music industry to actually believe survivors and prove it through its actions. All our support goes to sexual assault survivors and people who were subjected to spiking. Their voices should be heard loud and clear, in order to create a safer environment in European clubs. For more information on harm reduction in practice: https://vih.org/20180625/swaps-europe-1-harm-reduction-in-practice/
Belgium (Wallonia, BXL)