Drugged Drinks: Community Health Expert Weighs in on Increased Reports and How to Stay Safe
With an uptick of spiked drink reports in Boston, many are wondering how to stay vigilant. A Boston University community health sciences expert discusses the incidents, safety measures, and available resources.
For many Bostonians, summertime in the city means gathering with friends at local bars, trying new restaurants, and dancing late into the evening at any number of nightclubs. Spirits are high (and flowing) until the unthinkable happens: your drink gets spiked.
Beginning in early spring 2022, Boston police received an uptick of reports from alleged victims of drugged drinks at local bars and nightclubs. In addition to filing formal reports with the police, many survivors have come forward to share their experiences on social media platforms like TikTok, Twitter, and Facebook. On TikTok in particular, some videos on the prevalence of drink spiking in the city have amassed tens of thousands of views, with commenters often discussing similar incidents they either witnessed or experienced personally at popular Boston-area hangouts.
While the accounts have now made their way to a number of local news outlets, the issue of drugging drinks is not a problem exclusive to the city of Boston. According to a poll conducted by American Addiction Centers, 44% of men and 56% of women surveyed said they’ve unknowingly had their drink spiked. What’s more, it can be difficult to trace the culprits committing these crimes as many people don’t report their experiences directly to the authorities.
For more insight on this crisis and how to protect yourself and loved ones, we turned to Dr. Emily Rothman, a professor and chair of occupational therapy at Boston University’s Sargent College. Dr. Rothman also holds positions at the BU School of Public Health in community health sciences and at the BU School of Medicine in the department of pediatrics. Much of Dr. Rothman’s work focuses on the areas of intimate partner violence and sexual assault.
Recently, there have been an uptick of police reports from alleged victims of drugged drinks at Boston-area bars and clubs. What is drink spiking?
In the context of a bar or club, drink spiking is when someone puts a drug into your drink without you knowing about it and without your consent. Often, people cannot tell that their drink has been spiked because it does not look, smell, or taste any different. The drugs that are used for spiking might affect your memory, balance, inhibitions, ability to concentrate or speak, or ability to interpret what is happening. People are at increased risk for sexual or physical assault, or theft, when they experience drink spiking.
Drugs used in drink spiking, often referred to as “date rape drugs,” can cause a number of physical symptoms. What are the most common types of substances and what effect can they have on an individual?
If you are drinking a non-alcoholic drink, it is possible for someone to put alcohol in it — or if you are drinking an alcohol beverage someone can increase the alcohol content. That makes alcohol one of the most common drugs that is used for drink spiking. Other drugs include amphetamines, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, cannabis, cocaine, GHB, ketamine, MDMA, and opiates.
Do you have recommendations for how to stay vigilant when going out to a bar or nightclub?
I do have some tips, although I want to make it very clear that if someone experiences drink spiking or sexual assault it is NOT their fault and that they should not spend even one minute thinking “maybe there was more that I should have done to stay vigilant.” It’s a good idea to go out to bars and clubs with friends and to talk ahead of time about the fact you plan to help keep an eye on each others’ drinks, on the people who approach you and try to get near your drinks, and what your safety plan is in case you suspect that you have experienced drink spiking (i.e., where will you go for medical attention, how, and who will accompany you). Yes, it makes sense to talk about that in advance!
Definitely do not leave your drink unattended. I think most people know not to leave their drink on their table or on the bar and walk away from it and come back to it, but there are also instances when, in a crowded bar situation, someone has spiked a drink in just a split second when someone looks down to check their phone. It stinks to have to do this, but keep your drink in your hand, and focus on drinking it. I also suggest that you not accept drinks from other people — even from someone who seems like they are just trying to be nice, or if you are on a date, etc. It’s better to go with them over to the bar, watch the drink being poured, and see if you can take it directly from the bartender.
Some survivors have taken to social media platforms like TikTok, Twitter, and a Facebook group, Booze in Boston, to discuss their experiences. From your perspective, how has social media impacted the way victims share their stories/spread information? Are the outcomes largely positive? Or negative?
This is a really tough question. On the one hand, I think sharing information is very important and that there is a lot that can be gained that’s incredibly positive by connecting with other people who have been through something that you have — or who want to express their support and allyship. On the other hand, lately we have seen a few cases where people who speak out are threatened or hit with lawsuits for either libel or defamation. I hope that won’t have a silencing effect on people, but it is a concern.
If a victim does choose to report an assault to law enforcement, how can they go about doing so, and what should they expect?
At Boston University, our Sexual Assault Response and Prevention (SARP) office has some great advice about reporting. You can find that on their website here: https://www.bu.edu/safety/sexual-misconduct/reporting/
What other resources are available for those seeking support?
National Sexual Assault Hotline
Hours: Available 24 hours