Long-term studies are showing an increased risk of incontinence and other health problems among Asians who use the cheap animal tranquilizer ketamine for a hallucinogenic high.
The drug, which resembles cocaine but costs just 10 percent as much, was first synthesized in 1962 as a veterinary anesthetic. It took off as a party drug about a decade ago in Hong Kong, where doctors recently found that heavy users face an increased risk of poor bladder control and long-term liver damage.
“The worst cases are in young people who have to empty their bladders every 15 minutes. They can’t even take a bus ride without alighting and going to the toilet,” said psychiatrist Ben Cheung, who works with ketamine users, during an interview with Reuters.
“Their kidney functions are affected and they are so young. This is a serious health consequence that we never expected because it has never been seen anywhere else.”
Additionally, a recent study in Hong Kong of 97 drug users, most of whom mainly snorted ketamine, found that over 60 percent suffered depression, 31 percent reported poor concentration and 23 percent had memory problems.
“It shocked the users. Never did they think it would affect brain function and they care about that,” said Tatia Lee, who helped conduct the study, in an interview with Reuters.
Ketamine users typically mix the drug with other substances. And dealers seeking to boost profits often add powder from chalk, paint scraped off walls and crushed glass to give the drug the look of high quality ketamine.
“It’s difficult to pin certain effects to a drug but ketamine is still the primary substance,” said Cheung.
Ketamine began as a sort of poor man’s cocaine because of the drug’s odorless, ease of use and low cost. Indeed, three daily hits of the ketamine costs just $13. In 2000, ketamine use surpassed that of heroin in Hong Kong, and it later overtook marijuana as well.
Although not addictive, experts say users become psychologically dependent on the drug.
A Reuters report citing sources familiar with the trade say ketamine is widely manufactured in liquid form in China, and then transported into Hong Kong for easy conversion into the powder form. Young people in Hong Kong travel across the border to China to partake in the nation’s party scene, which includes a cheap and plentiful supply of ketamine.
One study found an estimated 8,309 psychotropic drug users in Hong Kong in 2008, of which 5,042 used ketamine. Methylamphetamine, also known as ice, came in second with 1,360 users.
Ketamine was often combined with drugs such as ice and ecstasy, and used at rave party circuits in Singapore, Taiwan, Bangkok and Malaysia earlier in the decade.
“It has (also) spread beyond Asia to places like Canada, particularly its ethnic Chinese community. Drug trend is like fashion, it is passed along by friends,” Cheung added.
Although law enforcement raids in Hong Kong have driven ketamine away from nightspots in recent years, its ample supply and ease of use has enticed ever-younger people to become addicted, and the drug now virtually ubiquitous.
“Its use is rising and we have addicts as young as nine. Before, people used it in nightspots, now drugs are a part of their lives, they use it everyday, in their homes, in their office (toilets), everywhere,” Sparkle Yu, a social worker with the Hong Kong-based Catholic help group Caritas, told Reuters.
“It is very easy to buy. They (pushers) can deliver them to the foot of your office building in 15 minutes.”
However, the consequences are dangerous.
“The complications of psychotropic drugs are many. For ice and ecstasy, they are linked to cardiac, lung and breathing difficulties, brain damage,” said Peggy Chu, senior medical officer and urologist at Tuen Mun Hospital in Hong Kong, in an interview with Reuters.
“For ketamine, there is long term neurological and uterine complications, like having to go to the toilet every 15 minutes, bladder, kidney and liver problems. Colangitis, or inflammation of the bile duct, causes stomach pain and it could damage the liver in the long term.”