Illicit shipments of ketamine have risen 350% since 2017

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Silent rise of ketamine on our streets: Illicit shipments of horse tranquilizer-turned-party drug have risen 350% since 2017 – with Tennessee and Florida seeing most busts

Seizures of ketamine have more than quadrupled in the US in just five years, a study has revealed.

Researchers in New York and Florida warned the number of illegal drug busts involving the sedative had spiked 350 percent since 2017, from 55 to 247 in 2022 after analyzing official data.

During that time the annual weight of street ketamine seized during busts rose from 127lbs to 1,550lbs. 

The rise in street ketamine comes as the drug begins to earn a reputation as a powerful treatment for mental health problems and trauma. Clinics across the country are offering it as an off-label treatment for depression, anxiety — and even improving relationships.

The number of ketamine seizures in the US has jumped 350 percent, official data showed

The number of ketamine seizures in the US has jumped 350 percent, official data showed

The total weight of the amount of ketamine seized has jumped by 1,100 percent, however

The total weight of the amount of ketamine seized has jumped by 1,100 percent, however

Ketamine, also known as Special K, Ket, or Kit Kat, was popular as a party drug in the late 1990s where it was commonly dosed on at all-night raves.

But its popularity slipped in the 2000s when it became a Schedule III drug and concerns were raised over side effects including hallucinations and, in rare cases, seizures.

The drug is now seeing a return, however, with surveys indicating that it is once again trickling back into the party scene.

The easing of prescribing practices during the Covid pandemic also allowed pop-up clinics to emerge that prescribe the drug off-label to treat mental health issues.

Although seizures are up, they are still a way off the records set in the early 2000s. The Drug Enforcement Agency says that it was seizing as many as 7million dosage units of ketamine in 2001 alone.

For the study, scientists led by NYU Langone Health analyzed data from the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program, which collects figures on seizures of drugs including ketamine across the US.

A total of 873 ketamine seizures were recorded between 2017 and 2022, which weighed some 4,082lbs.

Tennessee had the most seizures recorded (130 in total) and also the greatest weight of ketamine seized (1,860lbs).

By number, Florida was second with 113 seizures recorded and California was third with 73 seizures.

By weight Pennsylvania had the second highest number at 340lbs seized and New York had the third at 71.8lbs.

The scientists said, however, that this did not mean the drugs were being used more often in these states — as this may not be their final destination.

In the paper, scientists said the uptick was being driven by more people using the drug at raves as shown by surveys.

There was also a suggestion that it was because drug enforcement agencies were being more vigilant.

Dr Joseph Palamar, a population health expert who led the study, said: ‘This dramatic rise in ketamine seizures by law enforcement may be indicative of rising nonmedical and recreational use.

‘Unlike illegal ketamine years ago, most illegally obtained ketamine today is not pharmaceutical grade and is sold in powder form which may increase the risk that it contains other drugs such as fentanyl.

‘Unintentional exposure to fentanyl can lead to overdose.’

He says the fear is that any illegal powder in the US may be contaminated with fentanyl, just as it is now turning up in heroin and cocaine.

He also warned that media and medical promotion of prescription ketamine in recent years is fueling black-market use and availability.

Dr Palamar hopes the latest findings will better inform prevention and harm reduction strategies to protect the public from increased exposure to illegal ketamine and possible adverse effects from use.

The study was published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry. 

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