It was the drug drought that inspired a thousand online moans. But this week, a survey of over 10,000 university students has confirmed what reports around the UK have increasingly hinted at: ketamine is once again in plentiful supply.
Student website The Tab's annual university drug survey found a significant rise in the number of students using ketamine in 2016 compared to 2015. The survey also found that students are now paying less per gram than the inflated prices dealers were charging during the drought, which hit the UK in the spring of 2014 and effected supply through most of 2015.
Ketamine's return, according to the survey, is most prominent at universities in Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, Brighton and Newcastle – all cities well known for having historically high levels of ketamine use. More than half of the students surveyed at the University of the West of England in Bristol name ketamine as their university's "favourite drug". The survey found most students were paying between £20 and £29 for a gram of ketamine, more than the pre-drought price of £15 but less than the £30 to £50 being charged during the shortage.
This is all a far cry from springtime in 2014, when ketamine supplies started drying up, just as the drug was spiking in popularity in Britain. Out of nowhere, ketamine became hard to source, deals were heavily cut, underweight and triple the usual £15 gram bag price.
Users of online drug forums despaired, with people posting messages like "I've been looking at my living room for the past three weeks and it's just been normal. When is this going to end?"
Anyone boasting to have sourced some cheap ketamine that wasn't cut with its research chemical alternative, MXE, was immediately swamped by a deluge of PMs. There were maudlin pleas on Twitter; parody sites posting about fake charities set up to help drought sufferers; and the inevitable angry Hitler reaction video.
The lack of supply, however, has done some people a favour. Pre-drought, for its potency, at £15 a gram ketamine was incredibly cheap. It enabled people to snort multiple grams of the stuff on a daily basis for relatively little cost, especially if you were funding your habit by selling it to other people. Some friends of Nancy Lee, who died in 2014 aged 23 after using ketamine heavily from the age of 16, told me that the drought had prompted them to ditch the drug for good, with some switching to valium and alcohol.
Before The Tab's survey, there were signs that the drought was ending and supply lines into the UK had been re-established. There were the surprise mass seizures at Secret Garden Party in Cambridgeshire last summer. People were getting slapdash with their powder: a holidaymaker allegedly fed some K to a pigeon in Ibiza (his lawyer later said it was salt, not ketamine), and a friend of Kate Middleton's family was caught with it all over his face. It appears that, since the festival season, there has been a re-awakening of the ketamine market, with easier availability, lower prices and higher purity.
It's hard to say definitively what initiated the ketamine drought and what sparked its return to the UK, but the answers are almost certainly found thousands of miles from Britain's streets. Analysts generally agree that the UK shortage was initiated by a clampdown on the diversion of ketamine onto the black market by authorities in India at the end of 2013.
Since ketamine has grown in popularity, particularly in the UK, India has been the main source of supply, from liquid ketamine bought in street pharmacies and smuggled in rosewater bottles, to larger scale trafficking of powder. Many factories in India – most notably in the western state of Maharashtra – manufacture tons of the drug for legitimate global markets where ketamine is used in hospitals, dentistry and in veterinary medicine.
Until the clampdown, it was easy for traffickers to obtain the drug from factories with few questions asked. The law change meant that ketamine became a far more heavily controlled drug, making it harder to obtain from high street chemists and commercially from factories.
Around the same time as the clampdown, 1,175kg of the drug – more than one million grams worth – meant for export to the UK, Australia and the US was seized at a chemical plant in Maharashtra. Then, in February of 2014, police uncovered a huge haul of 225kg of ketamine – the equivalent of a year of UK ketamine seizures in one day – in pallets of frozen food after stopping a VW van on the M6 outside Manchester. In June of the same year, ketamine was reclassified by the Home Office from a class C to a class B drug, meaning steeper sentences for those caught smuggling the drug into the UK.
The strangulation of supply became evident in the government's drug seizure statistics. Between 2014 to 2015 there were just 56kg of ketamine seized in England and Wales, a 70 percent fall from the previous year.
So what sparked ketamine's return to the UK's student halls, clubs and streets? The answer, as is often the case with the world's synthetic drugs market, can be found in China's vast network of underground drug labs.
While there's a high chance traffickers have found new ways to dodge the authorities to continue to divert Indian ketamine into Europe, the key driver behind the resurgence of supply in the UK is a rise in labs making the drug from scratch in China. Ketamine is not an easy to drug to make, but with the correct chemical know-how and equipment it's no harder than making ecstasy – something Dutch chemists have managed for the past couple of decades.
READ ON MOTHERBOARD: The Great K-Hole of China
Chinese authorities, responding to rising problematic ketamine use in China and Hong Kong, have tried to limit the availability of the drug's precursor compounds, such as hydroxylamine, a chemical more generally used in the production of nylon. Even so, the number of clandestine labs in China – the epicentre of global ketamine production and use – is rising. Analysts believe not all of the ketamine being pumped out of these places is ending up the nasal cavities of people in that region and that increased production of ketamine in clandestine laboratories in China has been a contributing factor to the end of the UK drought.
"It is highly likely that ketamine produced in Chinese labs is now reaching the UK market," Martin Raithelhuber, Illicit Synthetic Drug Expert at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), told me. Raithelhuber says the underground labs have proliferated across China in the last six years. Chinese authorities closed more than 100 such labs in 2014. The export of ketamine from China to Europe, he points out, follows an already established route of other relatively novel psychoactive substances, such as synthetic cannabis and cathinones (chemical "cousins" of amphetamines) including mephedrone.
It should come as no surprise that China, the world's biggest trading nation, is rapidly becoming the world's number one provider for the rising market in synthetic psychoactive drugs, of which ketamine is one of the most popular in Britain.
It will only be a matter of time – maybe a decade or two – before the global supply of plant-based drugs, such as cannabis, cocaine and heroin, is eclipsed by the trade in manmade substances designed to mimic, at a far cheaper cost, the effects of intoxicants that grow out of the ground.
This shift will turn China, a country with some of the harshest anti-drug laws in the world, into Earth's biggest drug dealer. If that's a situation the West dreads, then there is only one way of avoiding it – but it's not one governments in Europe and the Americas will be particularly keen to back: the legalisation of the plants that people have been using to get high for thousands of years.
More on VICE: