Ketamine: China's Other White Powder

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The man in the lab coat holding the syringe is careful to find muscle. Hit a vein and Edie would be on the floor before the needle could be pulled out. Edie is getting a fix of ketamine, or K in street slang. Steel slides through skin and Edie winces as the man eases the plunger down. A few minutes and 50 milligrams later, Edie is feeling no pain—a scene repeated around the world, countless times daily, whenever veterinarians operate on cats like Edie. Ketamine is an anesthetic for animals and, to a lesser extent, infants and the elderly. Among recreational users, it's becoming the club drug du jour, usually snorted as powder or popped in pills to effect anything from a physical fuzziness to a deep, paralyzing out-of-body experience. In the U.S., Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seizures of ketamine for 2001 skyrocketed more than 500% over the previous year's. In Hong Kong, K has already unseated ecstasy: of all reported drug abusers under the age of 21 last year, 59% were using ketamine. Cracking down is uniquely difficult because ketamine is legally produced and shipped—for medical use. In the U.S., gangs rob veterinary clinics for their ketamine stock, sometimes at gunpoint. Frequent seizures are made along the land border with Mexico, where liquid K is bought over the counter and smuggled back into the U.S., usually in plain sight, after being transferred to a water bottle sitting on the backseat of a car. But a seizure last year in Florida revealed a whole new pattern of K trafficking. In August, authorities in Miami Beach confiscated 70 kilos of raw ketamine powder—the state it is in before being liquefied, processed and labeled for clinical use—that made up no less than 71% of all ketamine seized by the DEA last year. The source was a chemical manufacturer in mainland China. China has five factories licensed to make and export ketamine, and they account for the majority of the K that ends up on Hong Kong's streets. The former colony is home to one of the most heavily trafficked land borders in the world—each day more than 200,000 people walk across to or from neighboring Shenzhen. William Ng, who heads Hong Kong's Customs Drug Investigation Bureau, says most of the K in the territory is coming straight from the mainland, usually through triad channels. According to Ng, wholesale powdered ketamine is obtained with relative ease from legitimate manufacturers on the mainland and transported into Hong Kong by mules. In its single largest seizure last year, Hong Kong customs nabbed 45 kilos of raw ketamine powder coming from the mainland. In Michigan and New Hampshire, police have arrested several small entrepreneurs for ordering K from Chinese chemical suppliers. Online, drug-focused message-board users engage in detailed descriptions of how to order raw ketamine in bulk from China and import it into the U.S. or Britain. In an attempt last year to regulate ketamine production and export, China's State Drug Administration (SDA) issued a circular to industry sources, dated May 9, that restricted ketamine production to five licensed factories and for the first time required an export license from overseas buyers. Message-board narco-surfers knew about it by May 18. Read one posted message: It was a sad day for many. Mail ordering K from China has become a lot more difficult, though the supply hasn't been disrupted and prices have remained stable. Aficionados refer to the semi-paralyzed trance produced by the drug as the K-hole. These days, a whole lot of K-holes are still going straight through to mainland China.