GHB Spiking in Amsterdam: The New Normal?
From an early age on, I was taught to watch my drink and cover it with my hands when going out. Getting spiked has always been a possibility. We probably all heard of it at some point, it’s nothing new. But currently, it seems more present than ever before.
GHB spiking has gotten increased media attention this autumn, especially because of recent ‘needle’ spiking cases in the UK. But it’s not just the UK: Voices have been raised on the issue of GHB spiking in many different cities, examples being protests in the form of the “Girls Night In” movement in many British cities, or the #BalanceTonBar campaign in Brussels.
But what about Amsterdam? Although the media coverage was nearly non-existent, I was soon confronted with spiking cases happening in my own surroundings in the Dutch capital.
GHB is often referred to as the “date rape drug”, but is also frequently used as a party drug and for chemsex within the LGBTQ+ community . According to Sven Bergshoeff, the Club Manager of Westerunie, GHB self-use has been drastically increasing in the last few years. Overdoses are not uncommon. Especially within the LGBTQ+ community, the drug seems to be very popular. “At our event Funhouse, it is the most commonly used drug”, Bergshoeff says. “If you have a big techno party, with many people taking it voluntarily as well, you almost never know for sure if people pass out because they have taken it themselves or through spiking”, he explains. According to Jellinek, an Amsterdam based organization specialized in the usage of drugs and addiction, the effects of GHB can greatly vary from person to person, and depend on the dosage. A small dose might make the user feel relaxed and calm. Among other things, it might also increase their sexual arousal, intensify touches, and have a stimulating effect. However, GHB use can also lead to nausea, vomiting, convulsions, and forgetfulness. The danger lies in the very fine line between pleasant effects, and a dosage that would lead to unconsciousness. This risk intensifies with involuntary GHB consumption, when the spiked person is unaware of their intoxication.
Maxime*, currently living in Amsterdam, has told me about her experience of being spiked with GHB:"Me and my friend got into a conversation with the bartender. He offered us a free drink. I trusted him, considering his position. We shared the drink. Everything went well for about ten minutes. I remember going to the toilet and feeling very drunk, even though I had only had one or two beers before. Then I walked out of the bar and that was my last memory." Maxime’s friend woke up the next day from nearly drowning in her bathtub, without any memories of how she got there. Both got tested for GHB the next day, and the result was positive. When they reported their cases to the police, they were very indifferent, advising them to just let it go since there was no evidence of who spiked their drink. Maxime’s case is not a unique case.
But how do clubs in Amsterdam deal with the possibility of GHB spiking? Have staff noticed an increase in cases? The Production Manager of De Marktkantine, Will Dekeunink, says that they have not had one case in the last months. “We have a very strict policy around GHB, we check very strictly at the door, maybe it happens in our club, but nobody came to us”, he says. Bergshoeff, the Club Manager of Westerunie, knows however, that even with very strict searches at the entrance, you can never be a hundred percent sure that no GHB comes in. “Contrary to the police, who are allowed to fouilleren - searching on the body or for example in the underwear - we are only allowed to touch on top of the clothes, visiteren''. Bergshoeff has also heard from some other clubs that more GHB spiking cases have been occuring.
Another club manager, who wants to stay anonymous, has spoken out on cases that have been happening in his club. During this year's Halloween event, a woman accompanied by her boyfriend suddenly collapsed and laid unconsciously on the floor. “She went from super sober to unconscious in about ten minutes”, he says. Her boyfriend saw someone hitting on her before. That same person was seen circling around the couple. “My suspicions then were that he drugged her. When we looked at the camera footage, we could see him touching her drink and holding something”, the club manager says. At one point, when the girl’s breathing slowed down extremely, the club had to call for medical help. They arrived just on time, when she stopped breathing. Luckily, she made it. GHB can have very dangerous effects, especially when mixed with a substance like alcohol, which according to the organization Jellinek, increases the risk of an overdose. In this case, they were able to identify the guy through the camera footage, and he was later caught by the police. This time, because there was evidence for who did it. But in most cases of GHB spiking, like in Maxime’s, there is no evidence of the perpetrator and prosecution rarely happens.
Spiking can not only happen in night-clubs or bars, but also at private events, such as house parties or in student accommodations. At Amsterdam University College (AUC) alone, three cases of drink spiking and one of needle spiking have been reported by the student newspaper The Herring at two events organized by student associations, on the 29th of October and 2nd of November.
While researching, I have mainly come across cases of women being spiked. According to Aleksandra Lankamer, the Co-President of HeForShe x UvA, a student association aiming to increase gender equality, “this problem is gendered, it fits into this patriarchal form of violence”. However, she stresses that if we want to find out more about this issue,“it needs to be clear that all individuals go through that and that all individual stories are important and relevant”. The same club that reported the spiking cases has also reported a case of a guy being spiked during a gay party.
Contrary to drink spiking, which is more commonly known, knowledge of needle spiking cases is much less spread. None of the clubs I have been in contact with knew of any needle spiking cases occurring in Amsterdam, or even the Netherlands, only having heard about cases in the UK. HeForShe x Uva has launched a campaign aimed at increasing awareness on injection spiking cases in Amsterdam and the Netherlands. “Beginning of November, we heard about injection spiking cases from several people, most often from friends of friends. At the same time, it was really difficult to find any official information on it in the Netherlands, there was nothing. So we thought we needed to do something”, says Lankamer.
Shirin* has opened up about the lack of available information and support regarding her experience of being needle spiked in Amsterdam. It happened when she went out the day before the clubs closed, wanting to have fun with her friends for one last time before the lockdown. ”I woke up with a needle prick in my belly and panicked”, she says. She immediately went to the emergency room at the OLVG hospital and instead of taking her worries seriously, they mocked her for being concerned and sent her home. “It was an awful experience, being left completely alone”, she says. Going to the police was equally pointless, as they only offered her an appointment ten days later. “I had to tell them what happened to me in a room full of people, despite having asked for a private space several times. The way authorities handled my case was honestly even more traumatizing and mentally exhausting than the fact that a stranger had injected me with a needle”. The GGD proved to be the most helpful in the end. She went to the Infectious Disease Department, which she found only with help from family members. “They immediately knew about the needle spiking incidents in the UK and instantly moved my case to higher authorities”. She then underwent several medical tests and was given medication and vaccinations against disease transmission. Lack of guidance on what to do and where to go in cases of needle spiking, but also drink spiking, is therefore a huge problem in Amsterdam.
It feels frustrating that everyone somehow knows that it is happening, but nothing is being done. The girl was told by the GGD that only one person before her had reported a needle spiking case within the entire Netherlands. Considering this, there seems to be a huge underreporting of cases, both of needle spiking and drink spiking. “It is very difficult to do anything, because there is no data, which is the struggle even we have, and policy makers maybe even more”, says Lankamer.
Incidents like these also do not just happen, and then you move on.“Weeks after this incident, I am still struggling with panic attacks. As soon as I leave my home, I feel like I have to be on a constant lookout”, explains Shirin.
What actions are being taken to prevent GHB spiking, in light of the increase in cases? Clubs I have talked to have stressed that their staff are trained to respond to such cases. Some clubs provide yearly first aid training, where employees learn how to identify the symptoms of an intoxicated person in order to react accordingly. Next to entrance searches, the campaign Ask for Angela - a coded message that can be used to ask staff for help in situations of discomfort - is also widespread. Some clubs also have educational posters, most often in the toilets.
Increased awareness of the issue could make people more conscious of spiking when going out, resulting in heightened perception of symptoms and unusual behavior. This will lead to both affected people and their surroundings detecting symptoms and seeking help quicker. "You often don't believe yourself, you blame it on the fact that maybe you drank too much", says Maxime. Looking back at what she might have done differently, she doesn’t regret anything. “I only think now that I should have questioned situations more often in the past with my friends, that this may have been a possibility, considering how easily it happens and how unnoticed”. A person that answered to the anonymous survey we shared had similar insights: “I was pretty drunk, having fun, and did not even notice that my friend got needle spiked. It was very scary and definitely discouraged me from attending social events that include alcohol or other substances”. Talking to people about the issue, many have expressed that the current increase in GHB spiking cases won’t change their habits or stop them from going out. “It is scary, but people are not going to stop clubbing. They are not going to boycott. Nightlife is already restricted through Covid. People won’t risk the small occasions we have to go out on militant purposes”, says Eva*, a university student in Amsterdam.
Nightlife is important to many people, which makes it all the more crucial that it remains a safe environment for everyone. There can’t just be awareness - event organizing bodies, including clubs and bars, have to take responsibility. In my opinion, this goes even further: The issue must be on the agenda and taken seriously by authorities, who have the means to establish protocols for such emergency situations, to support people as much as they can.
(To acknowledge: names marked with * have been altered to keep people’s testimonies anonymous)