Don't accept drinks from strangers

Until this frightening experience, I was extremely sceptical about the scare stories
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The Independent Online

This happened on Saturday night. I was out in Florence with my partner, Zaved, and a friend of ours, Michael. Michael had been to a private view, earlier in the evening. We met him later on in a neighbourhood gay bar, one we often go to. It's one for locals rather than passing trade, friendly and cosy rather than glamorous or seedy.

That night, they were playing Grease on the television, the sound turned down; the barman only raising the volume when it got to a song he wanted to sing along with.

Most of the people there were with friends, with only the occasional man on his own hoping to get lucky - it isn't really that sort of bar. One man leant over and asked Zaved for a light. He was in his late 30s, not very attractive, in rather an ill-advised tight T-shirt. Zaved vaguely recognised him. "I had a conversation with him a month or two ago - I thought he was trying to get off with the girl I was with. He didn't manage it."

He started a conversation. He came from Lucca - did we know Lucca? Yes, indeed, nice town. Nice, but boring, didn't we think? Florence, much more exciting. Yes, we supposed that it must be. Yes, from London. "I speak English!" he suddenly said, in English, following it with a string of obscenities. Yes, we saw, that he did speak English.

The bore disappeared, and returned with a long drink, just one, for Zaved. He smiled, in rather an unfocused way - he seemed quite drunk, or just not very good at smiling. "Vodka tonic," he said. Zaved politely took a gulp of it; set it down, and looked at Michael.

Michael picked it up and took a sip, and put it down again quite firmly. The man seemed to have gone, already out through the door. In a minute or two, Zaved went to the loo; Michael and I carried on talking.

He was in the loo for quite a while, and when he came out, looked terrible; grey in the face and walking like someone extremely drunk - although he hadn't had more than three or four drinks during the evening. He sat down heavily, and then, reaching for words, said: "I want to go home. I've been sick. Very sick."

We got out into the street, and then, again, Zaved was violently sick against some Renaissance façade. Michael phoned for a taxi while I stayed with Zaved. The door of the palazzo opened, and an elegantly-dressed woman came out.

"Buona sera, signora," I said idiotically, as Zaved retched almost at her feet. "Buona sera," she said drily. "Come on, Zav, breathe deeply, stand upright, try and look sober," I said. "The taxi won't take you in this state."

It still hadn't occurred to me what had happened, for some reason; I suppose I thought, unlikely as it seemed, that Zav might have been necking negronis while I wasn't looking.

With the taxi window open, the driver looking anxiously in the rear mirror and worrying about the upholstery, we got home; he was violently sick again in the shrubbery, and again upstairs in the bathroom. I cleaned him up and put him to bed.

It was really only the next day - I was still looking after him, and he still looked pretty grim - that we realised what had happened. Michael phoned and said he felt so terrible he couldn't get up. I hadn't tasted the drink, and was absolutely fine, not even a hangover. The stranger from Lucca had given Zaved a drink spiked with some kind of drug.

I've discovered that the most common drugs for this purpose are Rohypnol, a heavy sedative, GHB, a sort of party drug, and ketamine, a powerful anaesthetic. Whichever it was, the man must have been an inexperienced sort of poisoner to have put so very large an amount of it in the drink; I don't know what he was hoping to achieve, but he obviously panicked and made a run for it.

I freely admit that, until this horrible and frightening experience, I was extremely sceptical about the scare stories of drink spiking which have been appearing in the press, and particularly about people who, having spent a whole evening going from pubs to nightclubs, find to their astonishment that they've ended up having sex with someone they didn't know.

Now, I don't have any doubt that drink spiking does indeed happen, and might very well be happening on a large scale. The worrying thing is that it is almost certainly happening more since the media started publicising the practice; the only reason for telling this story is to discourage people from taking drinks from strangers at all.

Of course, I wanted to go to the police, but everyone here laughed at me. "Come on - it was in a gay bar. You're foreigners. One of you isn't white. Remember, we're talking about the Italian police, here."

That was the sad and universal response, not reflecting well on the general opinion of the Italian authorities, and, probably wrongly, we didn't report it. The British police, thankfully, do take it seriously and respectfully. Altogether best, however, not to get to the point where it is necessary to involve the police, even if it means the very un-Christmassy behaviour of rudely refusing drinks from anyone other than people you know well.

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