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Drink Spiking at College May Be More Common Than Thought

Researchers surveyed more than 6,000 students at three American universities about doctored beverages.
Beer and cocktail glasses on a white table
Refreshments (wine, beer and cocktails) left unattended on a table at a party.william mebane / Getty Images

The incidence of spiked drinks among college students may be more common than anyone thought, a new study suggests.

Researchers who surveyed more than 6,000 students from three American universities found that nearly 8 percent said they thought they’d been slipped a doctored drink, while over 1 percent said they had sneaked one into someone else’s glass, according to the study published in Psychology of Violence.

“I think it’s been around for a while, but it was under the radar,” said the study’s lead author, Suzanne Swan, a professor in the departments of psychology and women’s and gender studies at the University of South Carolina, Columbia.

High-profile cases, like those of Bill Cosby and ex-NFL star Darren Sharper may have brought it more to the fore, Swan said. Recently, actress Rebel Wilson tweeted that her drink had been "roofied" while she was at a club with friends.

Swan and her colleagues surveyed 6,064 college students from the University of South Carolina, the University of Kentucky and the University of Cincinnati. Among the questions asked of the students were:

“Since the beginning of the fall term, how many times do you suspect or know that someone put a drug into your drink without your knowledge?

“Since the beginning of the fall term, have you or someone you know put drugs into someone else’s drink on purpose?

“What drug or drugs were used?

The researchers also asked people who drugged others about their motives. In nearly a third of cases the reason was to facilitate some sort of sexual assault, but there were other motives, including, for fun, for vengeance and to see what would happen.

Women were more likely than men to say they’d been the victims of spiking and also reported more negative consequences than men.

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One limitation of the study is that it depends on people’s suspicions that they have been given a doctored drink. It’s always possible that people are mistaken about what caused their symptoms.

Still, Swan points to other studies done in U.S. college students and young adults that found anywhere from 6 to 8.5 percent reported being drugged by someone else. An Australian study of 805 people aged 18-35 found that 25 percent had experienced drink spiking.

At this point, Swan would like to see some interventions focused on the people doing the drugging rather than just on the victims, she said.

“We’ve been telling people to watch their drinks since the 90s,” she said. “I think we need to do more than that. There needs to be a targeted message to people who say their motives are to have fun. They need to understand that they might be hurting someone with this behavior. You don’t know what other medications the person might be taking and how their body will respond. Also if someone is incapacitated, maybe you won’t do something, but someone else might.”

Related: 8 a.m. Class Fail: Sleepy Students Flunking Out

The new results came as no surprise to Janet McFarland, a clinician and forensic coordinator in the emergency department at Magee-Womens Hospital of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. One thing that was unexpected: how many men were victims of drink spiking.

It may be impossible to get good numbers on how many people actually do get doctored drinks because many of the drugs leave the system so quickly McFarland said.

While it can be difficult to differentiate between the effects of several alcoholic beverages and one doctored drink, there are warning signs:

  • You may feel drowsy and nauseated.
  • Your cheeks may feel flushed.
  • You may feel like your body temperature has gone up.
  • You may feel sexually aroused.
  • You may feel like you've had many more drinks than you've consumed.
  • You may start staggering and have an unsteady gait.

There are ways to protect yourself when out with friends:

1. Stick with your pack.

Predators are looking for easy prey. They’re less likely to target someone in the middle of a group of friends.

2. Make sure there’s at least one pack member who isn't drinking.

"You should have one member of the group who keeps their wits about them," says McFarland. "And that would be a good idea for men, too. Often they have a false sense of security."

3. If your friend says you need to leave, go without an argument because he or she might recognize that you've been given something well before you do.

4. Listen to your body.

If you're not feeling well after putting something into your body, it's probably not because it was a really strong drink.

5. Get your own drinks at the bar.

6. Keep your hand over your drink when you're out at a bar or club.

7. Remember that it can happen very fast.

Swan describes how one woman spotted someone slipping a little something into a friend’s drink when the woman looked away for a second.

8. Don't leave your drink unattended on the bar when you head off to the restroom.

9. If you’re out, don’t let friends leave with anybody.

“It’s amazing how often this happens knowing all the risks,” McFarland says.

10. Have a backup plan if you suddenly need to leave