The government is proposing tougher controls on a horse tranquilliser, amid growing evidence that the powerful anaesthetic ketamine is becoming the preferred drug for a new generation of clubbers.
Government moves toMatthew Taylor
Although no official figures are kept for ketamine's "recreational" use, recent studies suggest there has been a fourfold increase in the numbers using it and customs officials report an "emerging trend" of seizures at ports around the country.
Nick Agha, a club promoter who puts on dance music nights at venues across the UK said: "This is becoming the next in-thing. I first noticed it in Ibiza last year. Lots and lots of people were doing it."
Since then, he said, its popularity has spread to clubs across the UK. "It seems to fit in with the slow dubby music that is popular at the moment. At a lot of venues it has overtaken ecstasy in terms of the number of people doing it." Ketamine is not a controlled substance, but can only be obtained by prescription. In small amounts users say the powerful anaesthetic used in human and horse surgery induces feelings of euphoria and mild hallucinations.
But drug charities warn that it is very "dose-specific" and taking too much can lead to sickness and blackouts.
Jamie, 32, from London, who is a regular weekend user, said: "The right amount is really enjoyable. It feels like you are floating out of your body, but if you see someone else who has taken ket they are usually staggering around... I suppose it's a bit like having all your arms and legs pulled off and put back on the wrong way round."
He said that in recent months ketamine had become "the drug of choice" for a lot of clubbers. "It has been around on the gay scene for quite a while but now it is everywhere. People often combine it with ecstasy or cocaine or use it at after-club parties."
It is not illegal to possess ketamine but a paper published by the Home Office states that the government is proposing a change in the law following "evidence to suggest that ketamine is increasingly being used by clubbers on the dance scene".
That view is supported by a recent survey for the leading dance magazine Mixmag, which shows that among its readers there has been a four-fold increase in those taking ketamine since 2000.
"In 2004 20% of our readers had taken it in the last month, the highest ever in the survey's history," said Nick Stevenson, news editor at Mixmag. "Now it's become more widespread, trying ketamine isn't seen as such a risk."
But many clubbers do not enjoy the experience. One study cited by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs found that 87% of those who had used it said they would not try it again. "It was like being picked up and thrown across the room," one 30-year-old financial adviser told the Guardian. "When it had worn off a bit I felt like I'd been beaten up."
Ketamine first appeared on the dance scene in the early 1990s when it was often passed off as ecstasy. Observers say its recent popularity is due in part to its perceived purity in relation to cocaine or ecstasy.
The charity Drugscope says it is believed to be particularly popular with students because it is relatively cheap, costing around £20-30 a gram, widely available, and legal to possess.
There are concerns it is even being used by some pupils. Earlier this year a Wiltshire teacher said it was difficult to teach some teenagers at the beginning of the week because they were lethargic after taking ketamine at the weekend.
Petra Maxwell from Drugscope said there was little research into ketamine's long-term effects, although some studies suggest users can suffer from flashbacks and memory loss. "It is very dose-specific which can lead to problems for people who don't realise how much they are taking," she said.
She warned it could be particularly dangerous if used with depressant drugs such as alcohol, barbiturates, heroin or tranquillisers.
"It can shut down the body to such an effect that vital organs stop functioning," she said.
The Home Office is due to complete its consultation on changing ketamine's legal status at the end of this month.
Ketamine in the UK