Concerns that the anaesthetic drug ketamine — which causes hallucinations and can lull users into a coma — could be on the increase in Cork after nearly €27,000 worth of the drug was seized in the city in recent weeks.
Gardaí in Cork seized €23,900 of ketamine at a house in Ballincollig on February 5; and on January 30, gardaí seized €3,000 of ketamine after they stopped a car on the South Ring Road at Mahon. Two men, both in their 20s, were arrested in relation to the separate incidents.
Superintendent of serious crime in Cork, Mick Comyns, said that gardaí are now concerned that ketamine abuse could be on the increase: “Gardaí have certainly been seeing more of it in recent months."
But it is too early to tell whether that is due to increased garda searches and intelligence, or due to a change in drug culture in the city, he added.
Ketamine can be lethal. A powerful sedative, it can send users into a coma, leaving them vulnerable to rape or assault or to choking on their own vomit.
Hallucinations on the drug can also bring users into danger. One man was found walking up the fast lane of the M50, drawn to the bright lights, but was luckily picked up by gardaí before he was hit by traffic, Micheal Guerin of addiction charity Cuan Mhuire recalls.
“Ketamine and GHB — the date rape drug — have been been on our radar for the last couple of years as being drugs of note,” Mr Guerin said.
“We've mostly seen it used by younger people as part of polysubstance misuse issues.
It causes hallucinations and the come-down from it is quite significant with panic attacks, anxiety, suicidal ideation, so people use other drugs like benzodiazepines to cope with that.
"Modern-day drug use involves mixing different substances,” he said.
Dr Chris Luke, adjunct senior lecturer in Public Health at UCC, said the comatose state that the drug can cause is particularly dangerous.
Dr Luke said: “Ketamine puts people into a dissociated, trance-like state.
It can be lethal. If you take too much it can put you into a coma. And if you're lying in a coma on the pavement you're at high risk of being assaulted.
"It's one of the drugs you now expect to see in emergency departments everywhere.”
He said that ketamine is often mixed with cocaine by users and the substance is then commonly referred to as 'Calvin Klein' or 'CK'.
“Calvin Klein or CK — a mix of ketamine and cocaine — is how people often take it on the dance scene in Ireland, the UK, Ibiza. Cocaine is a stimulant and ketamine is a sedative, so they're trying to find that 'sweet spot' of being a little stimulated and a little relaxed," Dr Luke said.
“But the danger is that you can become too relaxed and comatose and inhale vomit or be assaulted or robbed, or with the cocaine you can be so stimulated that you can have a heart attack, a stroke or a seizure.
"Two people a day now are dying in Ireland from drug-taking every day. That's more than road deaths,” he said.
Ketamine, like cocaine, was originally invented by scientists and used by doctors to treat patients, Dr Luke said.
“Ketamine was an anaesthetic agent very popular with doctors in the 50s and 60s, it fell out of fashion because of safety concerns.
"Now, it's very popular with emergency doctors in ambulances and emergency departments but really nowhere else. But as long as it's made it will leak into the black market,” he said.
He compared the seeping of ketamine into the black market to cocaine's earlier entry, saying: “Cocaine was made popular by Dr Sigmund Freud, he was a psychiatrist in Vienna and he was the one who popularised it because he gave it to his clients in Vienna in the 1880s.
"So that's where the whole thing of the glamour and addiction and the use of it in high society began. The truth is that most of the drugs that we have problems with were invented by scientists, prescribed by doctors and were leaked into the black market.”
A gram of ketamine powder, the average amount bought for personal use, costs between €20-€50 on the street or online.
A former ketamine user told the Examiner that the drug, also known as 'K' or 'special K' is usually bought in powder form and snorted — although it can also be injected in liquid form. They said that the drug can have long-term health impacts.
“Ketamine skews your perceptions of reality and what's around you. High doses cause severe inebriation and you lose your ability to walk," the former user said.
“There was a casualness to it, you'd have a sniff at parties and it was easy enough to control your dose. It's not physically addictive but it is mentally addictive and it can do long-term damage. It can really damage the bladder and some heavy users have to rely on colostomy bags after sustained abuse.”