Ketamine is a drug which contains mind-altering properties and ketamine is soaring in Britain, a new report has found. The tranquillizer, which is legally available, has gone from being a rarity confined to gay clubs in London to a widely used drug of choice, more popular than ecstasy in some areas.
Experts say it is increasingly being taken as a recreational drug by middle-class professionals at weekends, instead of just hardened drug addicts.
But campaigners have warned that the drug can have serious side- effects and has been linked to psychotic episodes and schizophrenia.
For the first time, ketamine has featured in an annual survey by the charity DrugScope of the most widely available drugs in the UK. Last year, the market was so small that the drug did not appear in DrugScope's report. This year, it was recorded as being easily available in eight of the 15 cities surveyed in the report, including Gloucester, Portsmouth, Nottingham and Belfast.
Ketamine is widely used as an anaesthetic in humans and animals, but its hallucinogenic and 'out of body' side-effects have also made it popular among clubbers. Users say it has psychedelic qualities that can make it psychologically rather than physically addictive.
The DrugScope survey found that it can be bought for as little as pounds 15 a gram, putting it on a par with the cost of ecstasy. Dealers import the drug from Indian pharmacies and sell it freely on the streets.
The Government has become so concerned about the rising recreational use of ketamine that earlier this year it announced proposals to make it a Class C drug like anabolic steroids.
Harry Shapiro, editor of DrugLink magazine in which the survey appears, said: 'The emergence of ketamine as a key substance of choice is an entirely new phenomenon since we last carried out the survey in 2004, when it didn't figure at all.'
According to some estimates, one in five people on the clubbing scene have used the drug.
Observers said that because the potency of ecstasy pills has declined, people are turning to ketamine for a stronger effect. A Birmingham drug treatment worker, Neil Venables, said: 'Ecstasy pills contain less MDMA [the active ingredient] than they used to and so it is more of just a stimulant than something that alters your state of mind. People aged 18 to 25 are taking ketamine for a more trippy night out. You can spot them on the dance-floor because they're not dancing, they're sitting down in a bit of a vegetative state.'
The survey also found that the cost of the cheapest ecstasy in the UK has halved in the past year alone. Researchers found a rock- bottom price for ecstasy of 50p in Portsmouth this year, compared with last year's cheapest deal of pounds 1 in Birmingham. Even in London, the drug could be bought for pounds 2 a tablet.
More worryingly, the price of Class A drugs has also fallen dramatically in some cities over the past year. A gram of heroin now costs as little as pounds 25 in Sheffield, whereas last year it cost pounds 50. The survey found that drug dealers are offering 'two-for- one party packs' of heroin and crack, including special pounds 5-a- bag offers for prostitutes. For example, London dealers were commonly offering two pounds 10 bags of heroin and a pounds 10 bag of crack for pounds 25.
Cocaine has fallen slightly in price, with an average of around pounds 40 a gram.
The price of heroin has also halved in Portsmouth, from pounds 90 to pounds 40 per gram.
Crack can now be bought for as little as pounds 7 a rock in London, the report found.
The research also highlighted interesting regional differences in drug abuse. Amphetamines are most well-known in Nottingham and Newcastle, while Gloucester has the cheapest herbal cannabis and Valium is widespread in Glasgow and Birmingham.