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'Special K' Goes Global

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By Ginanne Brownell -- Special to GlobalPost

LONDON -- In Europe and North America it's called a k-hole. In Asia it's been dubbed a k-ride. Semantics aside, for many users the hallugenic immobile state that comes from taking a lot of ketamine -- which can be snorted, injected or swallowed in pill form -- is exactly the reason they use the drug.

For others it's a bizarre and frightening experience and is the reason why "K" is called the Marmite of drugs -- you either love it or hate it. In recent years, enough users have loved it that the use of ketamine, commonly used as a horse tranquilizer, is spreading beyond the club scene.

Ben, a 30-year-old university student in London, says he has taken the drug about 20 times in the last few years. Usually he snorts just a small "bump" at clubs, which makes him feel warm and puts a surreal tint on everything. But on two occasions he took too much and entered into a k-hole -- which users describe as a psychedelic out-of-body or near death experience -- and it left him freaked out.

"The first time I knew I had taken too much because everything kind of went into 3D like I was in 'The Matrix,'" he recalls. "My friends were having to hold me up as I was walking along and though I knew my feet were touching the ground it felt like they were 10 steps behind me; I felt like my consciousness was separate from my body and I was floating."
For a long time after that, Ben was careful about the amount he took. But last summer at the Glastonbury Festival, he accidentally took too much again. "I was watching the Chemical Brothers on stage when everything just pixilated and I remember falling into people behind me -- I was a mess."

The mess that is ketamine abuse is becoming a serious problem across the globe.
A 2008 report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found significantly increased use reported in Asia, Europe and North America. Several countries -- including Britain, the U.S., China and New Zealand -- have made the anesthetic illegal to possess without a license or prescription.

Asia has a particularly serious problem with K -- it is the primary drug of choice in Hong Kong, it ranks as the second leading drug abused in Singapore and the fifth in China.

Europe also is seeing a problematic increase. A 2007 report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) found that regular use of GHB and ketamine among clubbers -- the genre where K first became popular -- ranged from 6.7 percent in the Czech Republic to almost 21 percent in Hungary. In Britain the number has grown from an estimated 65,000 users in 2000 to 90,000 in 2007 with the numbers of users increasing by 10 percent last year.

Experts point to several reasons why ketamine use is on the rise. First, K is significantly cheaper than other drugs: In Britain the price has dropped from 30 pounds a gram -- roughly $45 -- to about 10 pounds a gram, while in Hong Kong a dose costs the same as a pack of cigarettes.

And unlike more traditional hallucinogens like LSD, ketamine's chemical ingredients are fairly easily ordered off the Internet. There is also the misconception that K is safer than other drugs, although recent research in places like Hong Kong, Britain and Canada has shown that extended abuse can lead to severe bladder and kidney problems.

"What we know is that it is taking off in Britain, in North America in certain pockets, in parts of Asia like Thailand where people are seeking it out as their drug of choice, and in the Philippines where there has been production and use of it," said the UNODC's Jeremy Douglas. "So we are seeing increased use worldwide, but it is hard to measure because it is not illegal in some jurisdictions."

First developed by Parke-Davis in the early 1960s as a surgical anesthetic, ketamine was used by mobile surgical units during the Vietnam War because it knocked people out quickly. After complaints that the anesthetic caused hallucinations and strange nightmares, ketamine fell out of favor in Europe and North America (though it is still used in surgery across the developing world because it is cheaper than other anesthetics). It is most commonly used today as a horse tranquilizer.

With the rise of clubbing and the drug Ecstasy across the globe in the 1990s, ketamine also began appearing on the dance scene. European DJs were introduced to K at beach parties in Goa, India -- where the drug can be purchased over the counter -- and started bringing it back home.

"K was first associated with the gay clubbing scene and so it started with that group and then filtered out from there," said Karenza Moore, a lecturer in criminology at Britain's Lancaster University who has done extensive research on ketamine and the clubbing scene. "In Britain it seems to be popular with older clubbers -- maybe it was the maturity of the scene with people wanting new experiences -- so that is where K came in and it has gone from something that no one did to something that is always there if you want it."
Worryingly, K seems to be moving from just a clubbing drug to more mainstream use in certain pockets of the globe.

"Students as young as 17 are becoming heavily involved in the drug," said Pete Weinstock, who works for the British-based Bristol Drug Project charity. "It is now being used in so many different places like pubs and parks -- where it used to be confined to one or two settings."

Matthew Southwell, a former drug user who now looks at emerging drug trends in Britain, said there is a concern that young kids are using ketamine in heavy doses. "We are seeing kids who who chose to buy grams of ketamine to get f***d up because its cheaper than alcohol," he said. "These are not young clubbers -- these are kids bored out of their minds and it has much more in common with binge drinking than club culture."

In Hong Kong, where the number of drug users under 21 who used K jumped from 1 percent in 1999 to 73 percent in 2006, the drug is so prevalent that teenagers have been arrested for possessing and using K in schools. One 14-year-old girl, who developed serious bladder problems due to sustained use, had been using the drug since she was 10.

"The drug was in the clubs and then it moved to the student population," said Douglas. "In Hong Kong K became cool because it was different -- the success of illicit drugs depends on the marketing campaign -- and in Hong Kong that campaign [has proved] very successful."

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