In veterinary circles, ketamine is used as a horse tranquilliser; on the battlefield, it has proved an effective anaesthetic. But in UK clubs and bars, the drug, known as Special K, has developed a mass following. According to new research, Special K, which has strong hallucinogenic qualities, is becoming as popular as ecstasy.
Special K, the horse pill taking overAlan Travis, home affairs editor
from ecstasy among clubbers
The rise in popularity of ketamine in the past year is revealed in a survey published today by DrugScope, the leading drugs information charity. The results of the survey - which involved analysing data from 40 frontline drug services operating in 15 cities - show that the drug, which was once only popular within the gay clubbing scene, has widened its appeal. Special K is now to be found on the list of major drugs on sale in eight of the 15 cities for the first time.
"The emergence of ketamine as a key substance of choice is an entirely new phenomenon since we last carried out the survey in 2004 when it didn't figure at all," said Harry Shapiro, editor of Druglink, the drug information charity's magazine.
The survey quotes Nottingham drugs worker Peter Hurd, of the drug counselling service Compass: "Ketamine has now established its place alongside the usual dance scene drugs like ecstasy. It is popular in pre-club bars and has a big following in both gay and straight clubs. It is being taken with other dance drugs by middle-class people who like to party hard at the weekend and then go back to work in the week."
Ketamine is being sold for as little as £15 a gram in London and Nottingham, half the average UK cost.
Neil Venables, a Birmingham drug treatment worker said that for some young people ketamine had replaced ecstasy: "Ecstasy pills contain less MDMA [the active ingredient] than they used and so it is more of 'just a stimulant' than something that alters your state of mind. People aged 18 to 25 are taking ketamine for a more trippy night out. You can spot them on the dance floor because they are not dancing, they're sitting down in a bit of vegetative state."
This anecdotal evidence from frontline drugs agencies is backed up by figures from the National Poisons Information Service, which reports that cases of ketamine intoxication have risen from 10 in 1995 to more than 100 in 2001.
The rise in popularity of ketamine has alarmed Home Office ministers, who have decided to outlaw it as a class C drug later this year on a par with cannabis and amphetamines.
Ketamine was invented by Parke-Davis laboratories in 1962 as a replacement for PCP or Angel Dust and is used as a horse tranquilliser. But it has also been used widely on humans after its worth as a "disassociative anaesthetic" in battlefield surgery was proved by the Americans in Vietnam. This hallucinogenic quality meant it helps to "separate" the mind from the body enabling urgent surgery to be performed to save the soldier's life.
Talk to Frank, the government's drug advice website, says: "Mixing it with anything else that slows down your body, like heroin, tranquillisers or alcohol, can be very dangerous. There's a risk you'll feel sleepy and unable to wake, and it's more likely that if you're sick you won't wake up or cough, so you'll choke on your own vomit. If it is mixed with ecstasy, it can bring back E sensations and feel quite trippy but it could also leave you with no control over your legs."
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which recommended that Ketamine be made a class C drug, said recreational users were unlikely to come to harm but it does pose risks for people with heart and circulation disorders and for those with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. They advised the government that it can be addictive but dependence level was substantially below nicotine and amphetamines.
Traditionally, ketamine pills on the illegal market came from vets' surgeries but more recently Customs and Excise say they have been brought in bulk from India, often shipped in as rosewater and massage oils. About one litre of ketamine liquid can make up to 50 grams of powder when cooked up.
The DrugScope annual survey shows that overall national street prices for illicit drugs have remained largely stable over the past year but there are some startling regional variations:
- ecstasy pills can be bought for as little as 50p in Portsmouth as against last year's rock bottom price of £1 in Birmingham, a sign that demand is falling
- Dealers are offering new users "two for one" heroin and crack "party packs"
- The price of heroin has halved in the past year in Sheffield to £25 a gram, making it the cheapest in Britain.
Ketamine How it works
- Ketamine was invented by Parke-Davis laboratories in 1962 and is widely used as an animal tranquilliser and as a battlefield anaethestic
- A 100mg dose leads to euphoria with rushes and waves of energy
- At 200mg users experience what they call "alternate realities" including hallucinations known as K-holes with unpredictable effects
- Some users claim they experience "ego death"; medical opinion says a ketamine trance can resemble catatonic schizophrenia
- Dealers can buy K in liquid or powder form in India at £110 a litre and ship it to UK to sell it at £30 a gram, cheaper than average street prices for cocaine or ecstasy