The first thing you notice are the straws: long, bright, pink-and-purple-striped, with bent necks reminiscent of childhood parties. They're all over the place, on benches, tables and trays, being passed around like lemonade. Otherwise, the room is exactly as you'd expect a private karaoke room would look like in Guilin, known as south China's most beautiful city, if you were to wander in at two in the morning.
A rumpled Taiwanese businessman makes eye contact. As his friends gear up for the next big song, he enthusiastically bids me enter. There's a lot of collar loosening and hugging, flabby, middle-aged male bellies and toasting. A couple of women have lost their tops. Everyone takes a big hit of the enormous lines on the tray, and then they ignore me.
A couple hours later, I'm in a very different part of the house. Not untypically for a Chinese KTV nightclub, it features a large, neon-soaked dance floor and several bars that no one is paying the least attention to. The main draw in this cavernous area is a network of concealed VIP rooms squirreled out back among a warren of identical corridors and floors accessible only to paying guests—and the very curious.
Down one of these hallways, there's another party happening, this time with a more extreme crowd. They're brighter-eyed and drunkenly energetic. It is a half-male, half-female crew, all around the same age. In front of a gigantic plasma TV blaring Korean pop videos, a young girl sallies forth to claim her song, watched by the stupefied group. The women are in black tops and skirts, the men are stripped to the waist and near skeletal thin; several are tattooed. All of them are off their heads on ketamine.
Ketamine is the most popular of all recreational drugs taken in South China, which is arguably the epicenter of global ketamine consumption and production. Here, in the heart of China's longtime manufacturing base, the drug is snorted and swallowed on a level unheard of in the West.
In 2008, the UN observed that ketamine—known in China simply as K or K粉 (K fen) or king—was "the most abused drug in Hong Kong [and] gaining popularity across southern China," but due to its legitimate applications, "the true extent of its use is unclear and probably underestimated." A report in Danwei in 2009 noted that K seizures in Hong Kong were rising at twice the rate of cocaine.
It's estimated that two-thirds of Chinese drug addicts are heroin users, a fact that owes largely to geography: the country borders the two biggest opium and heroin-producing countries in the world, Afghanistan and Myanmar. But in the past decade, China's drug market has rapidly expanded. According to a 2006 paper by Niklas Swanstrom, a security expert at Uppsala university in Sweden, it's become "an important nexus in the narcotics trade, both as a consumer, as a transit route, and a source for the export of precursor chemicals" to neighboring countries.
Along with meth, whose popularity is surging worldwide, the demand for ketamine in China is steadily rising. While the World Health Organization also singles out Goa, India, as a major global source of K, it estimates that in 2010, 99 percent of all global seizures of ketamine in the previous year were made in Asia, where the drug is "illicitly manufactured in China." In the case of many border seizures in the United States, it adds, "the substance was found to be smuggled from China via Mexico."
In a 2011 report, however, two Chinese police scholars, Yang Baohong and Wang Yan, refute this idea, insisting that while China's supplies of meth tend to make their way overseas, the country's ketamine is increasingly consumed at home.
Ketamine was first patented in Belgium in 1963, and used as an anesthetic and analgesic for animals and after recieving FDA approval, to treat injured soldiers in Vietnam. In the West, where K still doesn't enjoy the same acceptability of its class-A and class-B cousins, such as cocaine and marijuana, it's often described as a club drug capable of tranquillizing horses, and it is true that it is often used, in larger quantities, to dose very large mammals.
"Ketamine" was the one-word answer I once got from a busy zookeeper at a sprawling crocodile park in Thailand, after asking how it was possibly safe to photograph small children posing atop live tigers and crocodiles. But the term "horse tranquilizer" isn't a particularly helpful description when describing K's recreational use.
Today, the drug is known universally for rendering even experienced users utterly incapable, sending them to faraway mental plains. In China, as elsewhere, the term for this psychic out-of-body place is a K hole. Sometimes considered a "lunch break" high, the effect can be short lived. As with PCP, another so-called dissociative anesthetic from the 1960s, some users claim to be able to go straight down the K hole and be back, relatively sober, an hour later, just in time for work. At some point in between, these users—often young urbanites—will experience vivid lifelike daydreams and perhaps a profound sense of enlightenment, even in the middle of a Zhou Jie Lun track.
"I entered another world… It was terrifying, but what's scariest is the wonder in that world," wrote 20-year-old user Shenqiu de Liming ('Dawn of a Late Autumn Day') on his Sina blog after one K experience. "I felt as if I had I entered a 3D animation film. Everything looked near and far again, and felt so relaxed and amazing… it was beyond language… all desires are aroused. I suddenly thought of my brother's death. I woke up about an hour later and my girlfriend told me I'd been laughing and crying."
The intense K high can engender feelings of enlightenment, but also send inexperienced users into a state of impending doom. "I was so high that night I felt I was dying," wrote one 25-year-old Chinese girl. "I was made to drink a cup of milk and puked… then I began to sweat. I sweated so much my clothes were drenched."
Anti drug advocates in Hong Kong insist the drug can cause actual deaths. The most prominent case of overdose involved a girl who collapsed and died in 2009 after participating in a ketamine snorting contest at a Hong Kong nightclub.
In a report published this year, scientists at the University of Hong Kong and Oxford wrote that ketamine can increase heart rate and blood pressure in "self-limiting" ways, but cast doubt over the fatal risks of ketamine. "When ketamine is reported in drug-related fatatlities, it is usually found together with other drugs that are more likely to have contributed to death," the researchers wrote. They warned however of one of the acute dangers: the risk of physical harm due to "reduced perception of pain, hallucinations, paranoia and other effects."
Across the border on the mainland, the K-fen culture can appear wildly out of step with a country known for its societal fear of drugs, doting parental oversight and authoritarian governance. But even as some of those aspects are changing in China—and despite the argument by some Chinese that their country is far too complicated for foreigners to understand—the drug's runaway success here isn't very mysterious.
"Compared to methamphetamine and heroin, K is rather cheap," explains Officer Wang, a senior member of the Public Security Bureau in Dongguan, the gigantic manufacturing city in Guangdong, which borders Hong Kong. (Wang is a pseudonym, as police officers are not authorized to speak to the media.) "The general public is unaware of the dangers of K," he says. "Many believe this drug isn't addictive, and have the misunderstanding that it's not harmful to your health." But, he added, "[K] is capable of… not only harming our social moral fabric but even destroying society altogether."
Officer Wang says that ketamine's popularity in the south owes to its neighbor Hong Kong, and to its location along the crucial shipping lines of the South China Sea. "Because of geographical location and foreign influences, in the South there is an even greater curiosity about this drug," he says. Hong Kong's authorities, meanwhile, point the finger right back at the mainland for providing the white stuff that sometimes fills the former colony's karaoke rooms.
Guangdong was once Canton, the nexus of the historical foreign scourge of opium that by 1839 had exploded into open rebellion and the first of two painful wars. It's no surprise, then, that the penalties for trafficking ketamine, like any illegal narcotics in China, are severe. Last year, three Taiwanese men were executed in Fujian province for attempting to smuggle hundreds of kilograms of ketamine to Taiwan. In June, another three men were executed and four were sentenced to death in Hainan province for selling 7.9 kilograms of ketamine and nearly 40 grams of methamphetamine. (While China has sought to decriminalize illicit drug use, rehabilitation centers are often more like grueling labor camps, according to a 2010 Human Rights Watch report.)
And yet drugs remain readily available in China, if you know where to look.A cursory web search for drugs on the Chinese Internet yields promises of meth "delivered to your door within hours!" Some pharmaceutical factories offer "24-hour delivery service… just make one phone call, we'll deliver to your hands in one to five hours." A Chinese-language web query for "'k fen' + 'buy'" returns over thirteen million results. Most offer visible contact details (usually a QQ number, similar to Skype, or sometimes a cellphone), although it's not certain how many are fully operational.
Popular social-networking apps like Tencent's WeChat, known in Chinese as Weixin, a free messaging service that has well over 300 million users in China, have become a popular new channel for trafficking too. On WeChat, "rice" is the nickname for K (meth is "pork") and dealers usually use homophones of "drug selling" as their usernames, or pills as avatars, to chat up potential clients.
One WeChat seller, for example, was recently found with 550 grams of ketamine at his Guangxi home, which he bought for only 12,000 RMB, or $1,950—a tiny fraction of its price in California, where a gram can cost around $50.
"We have three types, priced according to purity," one seller, contacted via Dahe.cn, a Henan news portal, tells me over the phone. "'Platinum' and 'diamond' sell for 40 kuai a gram, and the Indian version for 60. Of course, the more you buy, the cheaper it gets." If Americans want the product shipped to the States, they can order via freight – two weeks – or air ("more expensive and a bit riskier").
According to the 'Chinese Online Crime Report of 2012', the annual knee-trembler from the Chinese People's Public Security University, the Internet has become a "key" battlefield in the never-ending struggle against narcotics. The authors describe a gang of 400 dealers arrested that year in Jilin, in China's northeast, who'd been using QQ and Taobao, the country's largest online marketplace, to sell to over 18 provinces. The report discloses that 66.2 percent of these suspects were aged under 35—due, partly, to this demographic's "pursuit of thrills and high web-usage."
"Young people in China wish to be 'edgy' and consider the ability to take K as a criterion of being 'cool'", wrote Zhong Yan, Dean of the northeast Jilin Police College, in a 2006 thesis published online. Zhong offers an anecdote to prove his point, one about a "wealthy" youth who attended a friend's birthday with a bag of the stuff. According to Zhong, "He was embarrassed just bringing the usual baijiu"— Chinese white spirit—"and cigarettes, as he felt it didn't show his friendship enough."
In that situation, the inexpensiveness of the drug wasn't nearly as valuable as its exotic qualities. Though Zhong also acknowledges that most K users are drawn to it simply because it's "cheaper and easier to access," the story helps demonstrate K's sui generis status across the strata of Chinese society.
In China, ketamine is generally referred to as a type of xin xing du pin or "new drug," something that, unlike heroin, is capable of being produced anywhere. And China has no shortage of chemical factories where all manner of compounds, both legal and illegal, can be synthesized, sometimes far from official oversight. According to a 2006 WHO 'Critical Report' on Ketamine, its modern "production is a complex and time-consuming process, making clandestine production impractical." Legal and illegal ketamine laboratories might exist in countries "including Belgium, China, Colombia, Germany, Mexico, and the United States," the report speculates, though regions where corruption is strongest, and rule of law weakest, are more probable chief culprits of illegal manufacture.
In 2003, after China's central government designated just 16 factories as legal ketamine producers, an audit found that more than nine million vials of injectable ketamine had disappeared from the country's pharmaceutical distribution network. That led to a tightening-up of export regulations for medical ketamine and for its main precursor, hydroxylimine. But online advertising of ketamine and its ingredients to foreign buyers remains pervasive. By 2010, only one company had been authorized to produce hydroxylamine on the mainland, and while it hadn't begun manufacturing, a Google search for the chemical in China that year still amounted to approximately 200,000 results.
As legal ketamine continues to slip into the black market, clandestine homemade labs are proliferatating. Self-taught ketamine chemists conceal their labs in mountains and forests, reported the Guangzhou-based Southern Daily in 2010. "The new generation of drugs are easy to make," one source told the paper, "requiring only ingredients available at every drugstore and basic chemistry knowledge." In March, Chinese media reported that in Hubei, police seized nearly 300 kilograms of ketamine and detained 12 suspects at an illegal lab, a deserted poultry farm that claimed to be "processing medicine." It's a poignant euphamism: recreational users don't refer to it as xi du—literally "inhaling poison"—but haiyao, which means "high" medicine.
Despite its criminality, K has gained some recognition among human health practitioners: in some places the drug is increasingly being considered as a treatment for alcohol addiction. While the long-term effects of ketamine use are still being investigated, recent literature suggests that chronic use can mean negative neuropsychological and urological effects. Still, in 2010, one leading Yale University researcher proclaimed K a "magic drug" for dealing with short-term depression; some US physicians are already prescribing it.
"There's not a physical addiction, but [users] are very much psychologically addicted," Patrick Wu of the Shek Kwu Chau rehabilitation center in Hong Kong told the AFP in a story that dubbed it "powerful and addictive." Their K treatment program lasts "at least six months, compared to just two months for heroin."
Yet Gong Jing, the head of the Qinduankou Narcotics Addiction Treatment Hospital in Wuhan, Hubei province, disagrees. "There aren't many ketamine patients in our hospital because its symptoms are quite light," Gong tells me. "It's not really addictive."
The city has touted what its Narcotics Commissioner Erika Hui calls a "holistic" five-pronged approach that involves law enforcement, education, treatment, research and cooperation with mainland authorities. "Our focus has been to encourage people to seek help early rather than hiding," she said. "The first priority will be to assist rather than to catch or prosecute people for taking drugs."
Across the border, China's public security service doesn't provide much verifiable information about the efforts to fight K. But in 2012, according to public statistics, the police confiscated 4.7 tons of K, along with 7.3 tons of heroin, 16.2 tons of methamphetamine, and more than 5,800 tons of chemical agents used to make drugs.
This year's biggest reported mainland ketamine bust involved over a thousand kilos. According to the Straits Herald, a Fujian paper, a pair of Taiwanese men were reported to have purchased 50,000 RMB, about $8,100, worth of wooden Buddha statues from a Fuzhou tradesman, "Mr Lin." After Lin reported the men's apparent indifference toward his craftsmanship to police, they traced the purchase and found 700 bags of K secreted in 50 sculptures, all en routefrom Guangdong to Taiwan, via Xiamen and Fuzhou.
Among "new drugs," however, ketamine is not Dr. Gong's—or China's—biggest concern. Like much of the world, he is facing down the rising threat of meth addiction. Capable of keeping workers such as truckers and factory-line operatives awake and highly productive in the short term, meth is a heavily addictive and destructive drug.
While precursor chemicals from China are known to power the meth-making industries of northern Mexico and the southwest United States, its spread throughout China has been largely linked to the country's northeastern neighbor, North Korea, where it is used and produced widely in the countryside and border regions.
Although North Korea's status in China is now more that of embarrassing 'frenemy' than ally, the two countries typically remain resolutely chummy in public. This means that many of the Kim regime's more egregious acts—such as border killings and kidnappings involving North Korean military—are dealt with through gritted teeth. Still, it's widely understood that North Korea is pumping its friend with meth. The frequent, coy stories about China's meth problem in state media never make mention of their problem-child supplier in the north. But a recent report into meth production in the English-language Communist daily Global Times was unusually forthright when it noted that although "official sources remain curiously tight-lipped… many… point the finger at North Korea."
That said, meth is a typically 'lower-class' drug: there's no glamour involved, and no such thing as a functioning meth-head. By contrast, K is a physically non-addictive hallucinogenic anesthetic. It serves no economic purpose to users. It transcends socio-economic boundaries. In an increasingly wealthier China, K is cool.
One night in Guangzhou earlier this year, I met Golden, an African "businessman" as he described himself. He offered me something to liven up my night; seems he was offering everyone. Two days later, we reconnected on what I had designated as safe ground: a busy bar area. Instead, he picked me up and took me on an unscheduled taxi ride with an anonymous guy riding shotgun.
Despite the sudden change of plan, I felt fairly calm. After all, Golden was probably being just as cautious as I was. We drove quite far, and soon the cityscape changed to a district I hadn't visited, one home to the African community that has helped vitalize Guangzhou's export economy in the last few decades.
Over beer and kebabs in a garden café wafting with sweet-smelling smoke, Golden sat me down and let me pay for a meal. He and his friend—who, I was mildly startled to learn, was just called Casey—told me what they knew.
Golden says a gram of K sells for around 280 renminbi in Guangzhou, or around $45. At that price, he's clearly bullshitting: K's a made-in-China high and even Dean Zhong of the Chinese Public Security Bureau says it has a street value of around 40-60RMB per gram—about $10 in coastal areas, about a fifth of what Golden suggests. Further inland, around Guanxi, it might go for 160-180RMB.
A dealer contacted over WeChat in Beijing claims to sell meth and K, both the domestic variety and imported from India. Both would cost us around 100 RMB per gram in the capital. Purity? 90 percent, he assured. Could he send 10 grams? No problem.
But Golden's mark-up is normal, as foreign dealers are careful never to sell to locals. For one thing, Golden says, "If you sell it to Chinese people, the penalty will be more," and for another, it's not worth the margins: "Chinese sell it to themselves, as they have more of it."
To hear Golden tell it, it's not a big deal. "When you go to a club, they place it on the table and they sniff it, girls and boys," he says. I tell him the story about the clubs in Guilin—where local uniformed police were snorting up and zoning out alongside everyone else—and he starts nodding.
"It's like in Jamaica," he says. "If people are smoking weed, no one cares. In China, if people are doing K, it's the same."
Still, police in China's south remain vigilant. In August, police in Guangzhou arrested 168 drug suspects in a raid of the Lihua Hotel. Many of those arrested were of West African descent and charged with possession of heroin and methamphetamines. "Most of those foreign drug dealers caught in China will be repatriated after years of imprisonment," an official in Beijing told the Global Times.
In a rare and dramatic public example of drug enforcement in May, a platoon of 1,000 police officers, some toting submachine guns, made an early-morning raid on an "extravagant" four-story, 60-KTV room hotel in Dongguan, capital of Guangdong, arresting around 2,000 clients for possession of ketamine and other drugs. So large was the haul that the cops were forced to mobilize eight public buses just to transport them into detention.
Local media suggested that the lavish Jun Huang Hotel was known as a "popular drug spot." The raid itself was probably the result of some arcane shift in local power-dynamics, but the sheer scale of the bust—and the opulent "four-star" surroundings in which it took place—hints at the popularity, acceptance, and danger surrounding K.
Unsurprisingly, the story barely grazed either Chinese media or microblogs, though that probably has less to do with censorship than societal attitudes. Many users don't even see K as contraband.
"I think it's legal," Golden proffered when asked about the police. Dean Zhong Yan's thesis suggests this is a common misconception: "Many [Chinese] don't think taking ketamine is illegal, and think of it instead as of status symbol," he writes.
That's not to say Ketamine doesn't pop up occasionally in scare stories, however. In one horrific example in Hunan in 2010, for example, a group of five men, including two ranking police officers, were convicted of the attempted gang-rape and manslaughter of a pair of 16- and 15-year-old girls, after meeting them at a karaoke bar and plying them with K. The case caused a local uproar, provincial news portal Rednet.cn reported. But despite the drug's ubiquity, the state propaganda machine has never really mobilized against K specifically.
"Some people, they're so used to it, they take the K and mix it with the coke"—a recondite combination sometimes known as "CK"—Golden tells me.
We clink beers and discuss Guangzhou politics. In five minutes, he will begin to attempt a hard sell. In the end, I leave with his business card. It carries a cellphone number, the name of his firm—"Lucky Global"—and its motto: "Feel Good."
Special thanks to Valentina Luo for her invaluable help in researching this article.
This article has been corrected: PCP, not DMT, is a "dissociative anasthetic." Guangzhou, not Dongguan, is the capital of Guangdong. We apologize for the errors.