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The globalization of "Special K"

The drug ketamine, used legally as a horse tranquilizer, is both cheap and easy to get.

The use of ketamine, a club drug of choice, is particularly high in Asia, where it can be obtained over the counter in some countries. (Vivek Prakash/Reuters)

LONDON — In Europe and North America it’s called a k-hole. In Asia it’s been dubbed a k-ride. Semantics aside, for many users the hallugenic immobile state that comes from taking a lot of ketamine — which can be snorted, injected or swallowed in pill form — is exactly the reason they use the drug.

For others it’s a bizarre and frightening experience and is the reason why “K” is called the Marmite of drugs — you either love it or hate it. In recent years, enough users have loved it that the use of ketamine, commonly used as a horse tranquilizer, is spreading beyond the club scene.

Ben, a 30-year-old university student in London, says he has taken the drug about 20 times in the last few years. Usually he snorts just a small “bump” at clubs, which makes him feel warm and puts a surreal tint on everything. But on two occasions he took too much and entered into a k-hole — which users describe as a psychedelic out-of-body or near death experience — and it left him freaked out.

“The first time I knew I had taken too much because everything kind of went into 3D like I was in 'The Matrix,'" he recalls. “My friends were having to hold me up as I was walking along and though I knew my feet were touching the ground it felt like they were 10 steps behind me; I felt like my consciousness was separate from my body and I was floating.” For a long time after that, Ben was careful about the amount he took. But last summer at the Glastonbury Festival, he accidentally took too much again. “I was watching the Chemical Brothers on stage when everything just pixilated and I remember falling into people behind me — I was a mess.”

The mess that is ketamine abuse is becoming a serious problem across the globe.

A 2008 report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found significantly increased use reported in Asia, Europe and North America. Several countries — including Britain, the U.S., China and New Zealand — have made the anesthetic illegal to possess without a license or prescription.

Asia has a particularly serious problem with K — it is the primary drug of choice in Hong Kong, it ranks as the second leading drug abused in Singapore and the fifth in China.

Europe also is seeing a problematic increase. A 2007 report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) found that regular use of GHB and ketamine among clubbers — the genre where K first became popular — ranged from 6.7 percent in the Czech Republic to almost 21 percent in Hungary. In Britain the number has grown from an estimated 65,000 users in 2000 to 90,000 in 2007 with the numbers of users increasing by 10 percent last year.

Experts point to several reasons why ketamine use is on the rise. First, K is significantly cheaper than other drugs: In Britain the price has dropped from 30 pounds a gram — roughly $45 — to about 10 pounds a gram, while in Hong Kong a dose costs the same as a pack of cigarettes.