Australian scientists confirmed this week that they have detected a new recreational drug that has never been seen in the country before: a substance with chemical qualities similar to ketamine but reportedly with different effects.
The dissociative was first detected in mid-August, after an individual brought a small bag of white crystals and powder to a team of researchers at Australia's first government-backed pill and drug testing service, CanTEST, in the capital Canberra. The client had originally thought the substance was ketamine, but said the effects “were very different to what they expected.” They asked the staff at the clinic to take a closer look.
“The expectation was ketamine, so we ran it through the testing equipment that we have on site,” Malcolm McLeod, associate professor at the Australian National University's (ANU) research school of chemistry, told VICE World News.
These initial tests quickly ruled out the possibility of ketamine—and subsequent lab tests revealed that the white powder was, in fact, a structurally similar substance that had been synthesised, somewhere, from scratch. It was, researchers concluded, a mysterious new synthetic drug, which they have now dubbed CanKet.
“It's a bit hard at that stage to exactly know what it is. So it's an unknown in that sense,” McLeod explained. “It's an entirely different chemical [to ketamine], and a fairly new chemical. It's one that's only been described in very, very recent times… and as far as we're aware, it's never been detected in Australia before.”
Around the same time the CanKet tests were taking place, a team of researchers in China published a research paper highlighting the “identification of three novel new psychoactive substances”—one of which was CanKet, or 2F-NENDCK, as the Chinese scientists referred to it. The authors of that report suggested that the new ketamine-like substance was probably created to get around prohibitive legislation, noting that it was structurally similar to another designer drug, NENK, which is also believed to have similar properties to ketamine and is listed in China’s illicit drugs catalogue.
McLeod said that he believes CanKet, which is illegal in Australia due to it being a ketamine analog, is “quite likely to have been imported” from a country with less stringent laws and regulations. In the two months since its first detection, he added, it has appeared at the testing clinic “four or five times.”
“Sometimes the client's kept it, sometimes they've discarded it, sometimes they've been very surprised that it's not ketamine,” he said. He also pointed out that, “We don’t know much about its effects,” noting that reports from users have differed and are “often quite subjective and a bit hard to unravel exactly what's going on.”
“I don't think I can give you a straightforward answer about what this drug is like,” he said. “What does it do to people? What effect does it have? We don't really know, would be a straightforward answer.”
One user VICE World News spoke to on condition of anonymity described it as feeling “very similar to ketamine, but not as deep or introspective.”
“I’ve bought ket three times in a row now and it's been 2F-NENDCK,” said Hunter, a pseudonym, who lives in Canberra and used the CanTEST service to determine the true identity of his pseudo ketamine each time. “I’d say it’s worse [than ketamine] but only slightly… The ‘happy’ feeling was lacking a little bit. I find I snort K and a smile forms on my face when it starts kicking in. This was lacking that—I'd just come up and kinda stay in a mundane headspace while feeling wonky.”
He also pointed out that while the drug feels different to ketamine, it’s similar enough that an “amateur dissociative user won't be able to tell the difference.” And while scientists and researchers have only detected the drug in Canberra thus far, VICE World News was told it's already spread interstate.
“It’s not just limited to the Canberra market,” said Hunter. “One of the batches I bought was at a festival/doof in the Blue Mountains, in New South Wales, off someone from Melbourne [in Victoria]—so it’s all around and not just in Canberra.”
While the potential dangers are as yet unknown, experts have already flagged concerns about the risks of such a mysterious, unstudied drug being so readily available to consumers—especially those who assume they’re getting ketamine, a relatively safe substance in the narcotics taxonomy.
In a statement provided to VICE World News, David Caldicott, associate professor from ANU, said, “While it would be fair to say we understand ketamine very well as a drug, we literally have no other data as to what the acute or chronic effects of this close cousin might be. And that is disconcerting.”
“Assuming that it is ‘safe’ because it appears related to ketamine would be an error of judgement.”
McLeod expressed similar concerns, explaining that even seemingly subtle changes to a substance’s chemical structure can cause dramatic changes to the way it affects the human body. He pointed to amphetamine, a relatively widespread and well-understood drug that is commonly used in ADHD medications like Adderrall and Dexedrine, among other things. McLeod explains that all it takes is a “pretty modest change” to that drug’s chemical structure to create PMA, otherwise known as Dr Death—a designer drug with similar effects to ecstasy, but less euphoric, more poisonous, and can kill at lower doses.
“Really small changes can have quite large effects, which is why we're concerned,” said McLeod. “We could have a scenario where a relatively new substance like this causes real harm.”
Many experts agree that the best way to mitigate such dangers is to have more drug testing services like CanTEST, and to make them more readily available to people who are going to take illicit substances. In its first month of operation, CanTEST examined 58 samples of a range of different drugs. From those results, researchers found that only 60 percent of “cocaine” samples actually contained cocaine, just over 65 percent of MDMA samples contained MDMA, and a number of drugs were cut with adulterants like dimethyl sulfone, sugar, and talc. Eighteen people discarded their drugs once the results were in.
“Really, the way to tackle this issue is to provide them with some information so that they can make informed decisions,” said McLeod. “We do hear a lot about seizures at the border, and so on, which is great—but clearly it's not catching everything.”
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