Ketamine (Drug) by DMTrott is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

NEW YORK — Seizures of the illicit party drug ketamine have skyrocketed by 349 percent in the United States over the last five years, new research reveals. This significant increase has sparked alarm over the potential dangers tied to the escalating recreational use of this illegal substance, initially designed for use as a horse tranquilizer.

The study by a team in New York indicates that the overall weight of ketamine seized in the U.S. escalated from 127 pounds in 2017 to roughly 1,550 pounds in 2022, marking an increase of over 1,100 percent. The hallucinogenic effects of ketamine have enhanced its popularity among teenagers and young adults frequenting dance clubs and raves. American users often refer to it by names such as Kit Kat, Cat Valium, Jet K, Purple, Special K, Vitamin K, or Super Acid.

The NYU Grossman School of Medicine and the National Drug Early Warning System (NDEWS) at the University of Florida spearheaded the research. They observed this massive rise in seizures by drug enforcement agents from 2017 to 2022.

The findings, appearing in JAMA Psychiatry, imply that individuals who use it recreationally are more likely to encounter an “adulterated” and potentially hazardous version of the drug.

“This dramatic rise in ketamine seizures by law enforcement may be indicative of rising nonmedical and recreational use,” adds study author Joseph J. Palamar, PhD, MPH, an associate professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone and a researcher in the Center for Drug Use and HIV/HCV Research at NYU School of Global Public Health.

“Unlike the 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,” Palamar continues in a university release.

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Did telehealth services lead to a drug surge?

During the COVID pandemic, the U.S. government eased prescribing practices for controlled substances, making it possible for more patients to use telemedicine and maintain access to vital medications. While this benefited numerous patients, Prof. Palamar believes that the relaxed restrictions also gave rise to an “industry” of pop-up clinics prescribing ketamine online and off-label for a variety of mental health conditions, with insufficient oversight of side-effects.

“Though the risk of overdose from ketamine alone is low, some people who use the drug report negative dissociative side effects, such as feeling dizzy or nauseous,” Dr. Palamar says.

Prof. Palamar, having extensively published on the use of club drugs like ketamine, ecstasy, and GHB, is warning recreational ketamine users about risks beyond the drug’s dissociative side-effects. He stresses that any illegal powder in the U.S. could potentially be contaminated with fentanyl, which is now found in substances like heroin and cocaine. He also expresses concern that media and medical promotion of prescription ketamine in recent years is fueling black-market use and availability.

The states with the highest number of ketamine seizures reported were Tennessee, Florida, and California. However, the researchers clarified that these figures don’t necessarily indicate the highest usage, as the location of seizures does not consistently reflect the final destination of the drug shipments.

Prof. Palamar hopes that these new findings will better guide prevention and harm reduction strategies to protect the public from increased exposure to illegal ketamine and potential adverse effects from its use.

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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