Spiking drinks is a sobering reality on US campuses, study says

A new study suggests that university students' drugged drink complaints are real, and represent a frequent problem faced on campuses.

Scott Sonner/AP/File
Students walk across campus at the University of Nevada, Reno. 'Spiked' or drugged drinks are a common problem on US campuses, according to a paper published Monday in the journal Psychology of Violence.

College students claiming to have been slipped a "spiked" or drugged drink may have been the victims of more than just their own overconsumption, as previous research has suggested.

While campus stories of spiked drinks are sometimes dismissed as overblown or even fictional, researchers led by associate University of South Carolina professor found that, from a pool of more than 6,000 students, 7.8 percent said they had been drugged and 1.4 percent said they or someone they knew had drugged another person. Other studies on the subject found estimates ranging from 6 to 8.5 percent of college students in the United States, while an Australian study reported one quarter of its participants having experienced a drugging.

"These data indicate that drugging is more than simply an urban legend," lead author Suzanne Swan said in a press release.

The "coercive" practice can include spiking drinks with other drugs, or simply adding more alcohol to a mixed drink or nonalcoholic beverage for reasons such as eliciting sex from a person, or for entertainment or a social boost. A 2007 study found that half of drug spikers had sexual motives, while 43 percent spiked drinks simply "for fun."

The new study by Professor Swan, published Monday in the journal Psychology of Violence, found that women were more likely to be targeted with a spiked drink than men. However, 21 percent of reported victims were male, and were more likely to report being drugged for fun, while female victims were more likely to have been drugged for sex-related reasons. Other less common motivations included attempts to change someone's mood, the desire put someone to sleep, or as a revenge tactic – all illegal.

"Even if a person is drugging someone else simply 'for fun' with no intent of taking advantage of the drugged person, the drugger is still putting a drug in someone else’s body without their consent – and this is coercive and controlling behavior," Swan said.

"Just as people have a fundamental right to consent to sexual activity, they also have the right to know and consent to the substances they ingest," she added.

The researchers noted that reported druggings can often be misidentified, or not reported at all.

"It must be noted that we have no way of knowing if the drugging victims were actually drugged or not, and many victims were not certain either," the researchers write in the report. "It is possible that some respondents drank too much, or drank a more potent kind of alcohol than they were accustomed to. Further, many common drugs, including over-the-counter and prescription drugs, interact with alcohol, increasing its effects."

The researchers also noted frequent memory loss associated with drink spikings, further complicating the reporting and confirmation process.

Swan's team concluded that, while information on the topic can be hard to come by and even unreliable, spiking is an issue frequently faced by both male and female college students. The researchers also highlighted the "clearly coercive" behavior linked to sexual and physical aggression and abuse, suggesting further study into the topic and the utilization of interventions for druggers.

"Clearly, much more research needs to done to further knowledge of this phenomenon," they said.

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