Thai police are hunting for the source of a deadly ketamine drug cocktail known locally as “k powdered milk” that has caused a wave of overdoses in Bangkok, as authorities scramble to learn more about the potent substance.
The powdered mixture is believed to be of ketamine, heroin, ecstasy and anti-anxiety medication diazepam. It has killed 10 people so far this month, including six in one day, according to local media reports. It has also led to several hospitalizations.
“The overdoses of the past week here are really tragic,” Jeremy Douglas, regional representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), told VICE World News.
“It really drives home just how complex the regional drug market has become as it has gone synthetic, and we’ll keep pushing for governments to invest in really studying drug use patterns and the forensics of what drugs are circulating on the streets – if they don’t, these incidents are likely to keep happening.”
Taken by itself, ketamine is a party drug that has also been used as an anesthetic in surgery and to treat depression. In the 1990s, police started finding it throughout Southeast Asia, and specifically Thailand, as other synthetic drugs like methamphetamine also began to surge throughout the ‘Golden Triangle’ region encompassing Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.
According to the UNODC, police in Thailand have continued to seize large shipments of ketamine, with particularly high findings starting in 2015.
Police Major General and medical doctor Pornchai Suteerakune said authorities have only located small dealers of the drug cocktail, but that they are trying to find the manufacturers. He expressed concern that this may only be the beginning of the problem.
“There’s a chance that we might find whoever is behind this in the near future, but I don’t think this drug is going to just disappear,” he said.
Police arrested one 23-year-old woman who was reportedly selling the drug cocktail. According to local media, she took police to her apartment where she had small bags of the powdery substance. She said the mixture contained ketamine along with a sleeping medication. She confessed that the substance was sold in Sai Mai district in Bangkok over an extended period of time.
Organizations working closely with drug users are also worried about the proliferation of this new mixture.
Verapun Ngammee is the executive director of Ozone Foundation Thailand, a local organization that advocates for improved drug education, health based policies, and for better services for people who use and inject drugs.
He said the new ketamine cocktail could continue to harm others. But he believes this specific case could help alert the public to much needed drug policy reform, highlighting the need to avoid stigmatizing and persecuting drug users.
“We need to learn from this story. It’s not that we need a society totally free of drugs. We need to accept that we will never stop the spread,” he said.
It’s not the first time ketamine has made headlines in Thailand. In early November, authorities claimed they seized almost $1 billion worth of the drug. The report sent shockwaves throughout the region for the size of the seizure. After examination, however, it turned out that the substance wasn’t ketamine at all but trisodium phosphate, a commonly used chemical for cleaning.
Ketamine is widely produced for legitimate pharmaceutical purposes. But it is also hugely popular with ravers around the world for its trippy sedative effects, and in high doses, it can turn into a dissociative, creating an almost out of body experience. It’s also being studied as a medication for severe depression, and some researchers even think it could help treat autism.
Douglas from the UNODC said that like methamphetamine, ketamine is being smuggled into Thailand from neighboring Myanmar.
“Aside from crystal meth, ketamine has been circulating through Thailand and the region the last few years, mainly out of labs in the Golden Triangle and Shan [state in Myanmar]. We wouldn’t be surprised if other synthetics are soon found as well, but the region is not looking for them. If you don’t look, you don’t find, and you won’t be ready.”