10 November 2008 - A drug used to tranquillize horses has taken the world's dance scene by storm. Clubbers are getting cheap thrills with ketamine, also used as a general anaesthetic in developing countries. Now the most abused drug in Hong Kong, ketamine is gaining popularity across southern China. Its use is spreading throughout East Asia as well as Australia, Europe and North America. But because ketamine is a legal substance - and therefore not controlled - the true extent of its use is unclear and probably underestimated.
Nicknamed 'Special K', ketamine can be taken in powder, liquid or tablet form but is often mixed with other drugs or alcohol. Sometimes ketamine is laced with synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine and then sold as ecstasy because it commands a higher price than straight ketamine.
Eager to diversify their "line of products", drug traffickers are savvy pushers of substances on people looking for the latest craze. "It is a new candy for the youth ", explains UNODC expert Jeremy Douglas, but cautions that people can be fooled. "Sometimes they know they're using ketamine, sometimes they don't". Uncertainty about the content of tablets sold as "ecstasy" is of concern and poses particular risk.
Falling into the " K-hole"
The effect of the drug depends on the dose. With low doses, party-goers may feel euphoric, have psychedelic experiences and lots of energy, Douglas explains. But in the quest for extreme sensations, high doses might plunge the user into an out-of-body or near-death experience known as the "K-hole", the ultimate ketamine high. "It's an anaesthetic so it can put someone in a catatonic state, a different state of being. Perception of the body, time and reality is severely altered."
Long-term use may impair the memory and cognitive functions, and damage the kidneys and internal organs.
Difficult to track
The emergence of ketamine on the synthetic drug scene has gone unnoticed in many parts of the world. Unlike illicit drugs, the trade in ketamine is not internationally controlled. This makes it hard to get a clear picture of how the drug is being diverted for illicit purposes. "We're seeing the use of ketamine taking off, but it's up to Member States and national governments to control it. Anyway, it seems that the use is growing both in developing countries and in the west", Douglas says.
To throw more light on the issue, UNODC recently launched the Global Synthetics Monitoring: Analysis, Reporting and Trends (SMART) Programme ( more information - pdf brochure). SMART teams will work with governments to develop, assess and report data and information on synthetic drugs, enabling countries to plan prevention and law enforcement responses.
Full text of UNODC's "Amphetamines and ecstasy: 2008 global ATS assessment" (pdf)