RISE IN KETAMINE USE ALARMING
A common sedative used for pet animals is slowly becoming a major drug of abuse in the Philippines, according to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA).
The PDEA has written to the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) to reclassify ketamine as a dangerous drug, Director General An-selmo Avenido said in an exclusive interview with The Manila Times. This is an attempt to arrest the rising popularity of ketamine among drug users, who may be turning to it as an alternative to other illegal substances that are now harder to get because of stricter law enforcement and skyrocketing prices. The DDB is expected to conduct a public hearing on March 15 on the PDEA's petition.
Veterinarians use ketamine to tranquilize animals, and some people believe that drug abusers use it as a downer, perhaps to counter the effects of stimulants like Ecstasy, more commonly called "X." Ketamine is also believed to be used with other drugs, such as shabu and cocaine.
Ketamine's street name is "special K" or simply "K." The effect it induces has been called "K hole," where the user experiences hallucinations and may lose sense of time and identity.
Ketamine is not new. It was developed in the 1960s, originally for human use. The Americans used it as an anesthetic in minor surgery to treat their wounded soldiers in Vietnam.
Its powder form was used as a recreational drug in the 1970s. In the 1980s it was referred to as "vitamin K," and its popularity surged again in the 1990s rave scene as "special K."
Abuse of ketamine may lead to profound physical and mental problems, including delirium, amnesia, impaired motor function and potentially fatal respiratory problems, according to sources.
Only three years ago, ketamine became popular in Hong Kong, Avenido said.
Today, it is a top choice of addicts there, as well as in Singapore and Taiwan.
"The situation in the Philippines today is like Hong Kong three years ago,"
Avenido said. But the PDEA has little hard evidence to back this up, save from some local intelligence and tips from international antidrug agencies to be vigilant.
Other PDEA officials said they are just now trying to understand this new drug problem. Getting a handle on the enormity of the abuse problem is virtually impossible. Ketamine is not classified as a dangerous drug or a precursor chemical. Thus, it can be bought openly and freely, even without a prescription. And so the PDEA's first countermeasure is to try to change the law.
If the DDB reclassifies ketamine as a dangerous drug, only doctors can prescribe it, and sales and inventory will have to be reported to the PDEA, Avenido explained. Also, mere possession of a dangerous drug can lead to arrest.
Today, buying ketamine is as easy as buying paracetamol, a common pain reliever, PDEA Director Lina Sarmiento said.
Even veterinary medicine students can buy ketamine, a liquid that usually comes in small vials, without a prescription. The drug becomes ketamine hydrochloride when in crystal form, and is also available as a tablet.
Although pharmaceutical firms are not required to report unusually large volumes of sales of ketamine to the PDEA, some already do so voluntarily.
Avenido said such a tip led the PDEA to seize some 7,000 vials in December 2003. Because ketamine is not classified as a dangerous drug or a precursor chemical, the PDEA had to resort to using a Bureau of Food and Drugs regulation to make the seizure and arrest. No other details were disclosed.
The volume of that seizure suggests a big problem to the PDEA.
One possible reason ketamine is becoming popular is that other, more popular choices are harder to get.
For example, Avenido said the PDEA has found that addicts who cannot access shabu (methamphetamine hydrochloride) turn to marijuana, which is more accessible and affordable.
In 2002 shabu was going for about P2,000 a gram, Avenido said. Last year the going rate was about P5,000 a gram. He added that the PDEA is seeing that shabu is diluted with tawas, or alum, which serves as an extender. For its part, Ecstasy now sells for about P4,000 to P5,000 a pill, up from P1,000 to P2,000, Avenido said.
He concludes, "Mahirap na ang supply [Supply is tight]." And the PDEA claims credit for this.
The PDEA boasts of seizing P201.19-billion worth of illegal drugs, chemicals and equipment last year alone.
Some 5,588 kilos of ephedrine, an ingredient in shabu, were seized last year, compared with only 263 kilos in 2001. Almost 84,900 have been arrested for drug-related crimes since the PDEA's inception in 2002. Almost 56,900 cases have been filed in court also in that time.
The problem is that only a few have been sentenced-the job of prosecutors, not the PDEA, Avenido said.
He estimates there are 34 million drug users in the country. The typical drug addict is aged 21 to 29, and the men outnumber women, 11 to 1. These figures are three years old and most likely outdated, PDEA officials admit.
But a new survey was conducted just last year, and the results are due out soon.