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DrugScope Street Drug Trends Survey 2011: Ketamine problems on the rise

16 November 2011

More drug services are seeing people coming forward for help with the drug ketamine, according to DrugScope’s 2011 Street Drug Trends Survey, published in the November/December edition of the charity’s Druglink magazine. The charity warns that many people who use or are tempted to use ketamine underestimate how harmful the drug can be.

The annual survey compiles and analyses feedback from 80 drug services, police forces, drug action teams and service user groups in 20 towns and cities across the UK.The survey provides an overview of patterns in the use and supply of drugs to give a snapshot of current UK street drug trends. The survey also compiles a national average price for different UK street drugs.

DrugScope’s survey findings underline evidence of the growing presence of ketamine on the UK drug scene.Figures released by Avon and Somerset Police in July this year revealed that ketamine seizures had increased substantially at the Glastonbury Festival this year; later in the same month, the 2010/11 British Crime Survey (BCS) showed increases in reported use of the drug among those aged 16-24. The Home Office-commissioned research estimated that nearly 300,000 people had used ketamine at least once.This figure has risen from an estimated 140,000 users in 2007, after ketamine was added to the list of drugs surveyed following the drug’s classification in 2006.

Of the twenty areas surveyed by DrugScope, three quarters reported increases both in the general use of ketamine and in the numbers of people coming forward for help with psychological and physical problems associated with the drug. The average UK price for ketamine is approximately £21 a gram. It is currently controlled as a Class C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

Ketamine was originally developed in the 1960s as an anaesthetic, and proved valuable for battlefield surgery as the patient could be anaesthetised quickly.Hospital patients reported disturbing visions as they regained consciousness after surgery, however, meaning its medical use has since been more restricted, although it is used in veterinary medicine. Illicit supplies appear to come mainly from India, China and the Far East.

The risks relating to non-medical use of the drug are manifold.At sufficiently high doses of the drug, users may experience a ‘K-hole’. This term refers to a subjective state which might include out-of-body experiences, confusion, temporary memory loss and vivid hallucinations. Use of the drug can become compulsive, particularly when injected. As the drug is an anaesthetic some users can injure themselves without realising while under its influence; its hallucinatory properties can also increase the risk of injury through risk-taking behaviour.The drug depresses the respiratory system and use in conjunction with alcohol is particularly risky.

For long term or dependent users, evidence is growing of the drug’s harmful impact on the urinary tract, with some dependent users experiencing extreme bladder problems culminating in the need to wear a catheter for the rest of their lives.

Martin Barnes, DrugScope’s Chief Executive said:

“Our survey findings underpin other evidence that use of ketamine appears to be on the rise, and that problems from using the drug are also now more apparent. People who use or are tempted to use ketamine need to know just how harmful this drug can be, and be able to access timely and professional help if required from their local drug services.

“In September, Kensington and Chelsea Hospital opened a new unit to treat people who have developed problems with so-called ‘club drugs’ including ketamine; a similar unit was opened at the Maudsley Hospital in south London in 2009. However, the evidence presented to us by drug workers indicates that use of ketamine is not confined to those on the club or party scene – use is taking place across the community, from young people experimenting with drugs to those using heroin and crack.

Druglink magazine first highlighted the harms associated with ketamine in 2000 - now that significant problems and evidence of increased use are beginning to emerge, it is very important that drug treatment and education services are sufficiently resourced to respond.”