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Kenya's Growing Ketamine Problem

It's a cleaner option than sniffing glue.

by David Meffe
19 August 2014, 8:00am

In Kenya, where unemployment in high and regulations are low, ketamine is popular among both upper and lower class residents of Nairobi. Generally, the drug is bought without a prescription at a pharmacy and sublimated from a liquid into a powder using a spoon and a candle – kind of like heroin, but backwards.

A candle flickers on a balcony in the west side of Nairobi as some friends sit on cushions under a cloudy sky, waiting for the moon to shine some light on the situation. Naree, the unofficial ringleader of the night’s proceedings, grabs the small opaque vial and pours a few milliliters of syrupy liquid into the lip of a metal tablespoon. He drops some wax on the floor, quickly sticking in the unlit end of the candle so it stands upright, firmly stuck to the tiles. He holds the spoon just above the flame so it lightly licks the bottom.

“This is the shady part,” Naree laughs. “This is the part that usually scares people off. People see a spoon and automatically assume it’s like, smack, you know?”

None of this is illegal; we purchased the ketamine from a small gas station pharmacy just down the road without even so much as a prescription. The whole bottle cost roughly $4.50, significantly less than a round of beers at a roadside Kenyan watering hole.

After a few minutes the liquid starts to sizzle and crystals start to appear under wisps of thin white smoke that smell of bitter chemical sublimation.

“OK, hold it steady, move it around a bit so you don’t burn what’s already cooked,” Naree says, handing the operation over to Nana. I can’t tell whether he’s starring at the spoon or the flame, but his eyes are fixed tight, unblinking. The tiny pool of liquid gradually shrinks and disappears with a hiss that lets us know the procedure is complete.

Naree uses a dull blade from his pocket to scrape the powder onto the glossy cover of an old notebook. He breaks up the scattered pile into a few thin lines and grabs a tightly rolled $1 American bill, just the right fit for a nostril. Holding the book flat, he looks up at me and smiles.

Ketamine is a powerful tranquiliser used commonly in human anesthetics and veterinary care. Better known as K, kitty, special K, vitamin K, mauve and a host of other strangely cute street names, it’s recreationally used in Europe, Asia, Australia and North America as a rave drug with other popular party powders like MDMA and speed. 

Naree cuts up a few lines of the ketamine he’s just cooked. Generally, the duration of the high depends on how much you take, and how you take it. Luckily, issues of purity are out of mind in Kenya since the drug can be obtained legally.

The Kenyan capital of Nairobi is a bustling stack of looming downtown financial buildings juxtaposed with some of East Africa’s largest urban slums. Youth unemployment is high, therefore many turn to illegal moonshine and creative uses of over-the-counter whatever to party. In recent years, there’s been a spike in the recreational use of ketamine by young Kenyans as a means to chill out and kill boredom. It seems dodgy, but it’s a cleaner option than sniffing glue – another popular pastime among East African youths.

Ketamine’s effects differ from other club drugs due to its properties as an anesthetic rather than an amphetamine. The feeling is an unbridled sense of calm and relaxation with a stark retention of cognitive command despite slurred speech and impaired movement; like being in control of everything and nothing all at once. Users feel drunk but not sloppy, high but not dopey and an overall sense of tranquility even amidst the chaos of an EDM show.

But in Nairobi, you’ll rarely see it at a club. The emphasis on afro-beat pop and a dance culture that stresses hip rhythm and sexual proximity makes it a terrible choice for a night out. So instead, people tend to use it at home and in groups, huddled around a few lines, tripping out quietly.

Ketamine’s effects last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour depending on how much you take, a cheap alternative to drinking and less obvious than lighting a joint inside a club – though that’s not entirely an uncommon sight in East Africa either.

With a high enough dosage, ketamine users find themselves in a place known as the “K-Hole”, a state of disassociation from one’s body, disorientation, memory loss and audiovisual hallucinations. Suddenly you’re falling backwards but you forget to hit the ground; somewhere, someone slips a warm blanket over you and you’re aware of the world around you, but completely indifferent to its goings on.

After the rise of its recreational use, ketamine was classified as a Schedule III drug under the United States Controlled Substance Act in 1999. However, it can still be obtained legally by university researchers and health professionals in the West. The drug is currently being researched for its medical properties in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, especially among veterans.

Its recreational use in the West, like most other synthetic drugs, is subject to issues of purity and legality, but here in Nairobi, getting your hands on medical grade K is as easy as picking up a few aspirin. Most small community pharmacies, known as Chemists, will sell it over-the-counter without a prescription for whatever reason people can come up with. Once it leaves the door, they don’t really care where it goes and there’s no real follow-up.

Naree took me to grab from a local chemist named Rafiki. She said the last person who’d bought ketamine was a young boy who used to come in every few weeks for a new bottle.

“He said he needed it for his dog or something,” she told us. “But he hasn’t come around in some time. Maybe something happened to the dog?”

Frequent and prolonged use has been associated with neurocognitive impairment and deficits in working memory. Rates of addiction are low, but like with anything, there’s always room for abuse and psychological dependence.

Dr. Pierre Blier is one of the leading ketamine researchers in North America and a professor at the Department of Psychiatry and Cellular/Molecular Medicines at the University of Ottawa. For years he’s been researching the clinical use of small ketamine doses as a fast acting treatment for severe depression and bipolar disorder—with great success.

“When you take any illicit drug on the street, you don’t know what’s in it. So there is probably always some ketamine in it, but it’s probably cut with other things,” Blier says. “So when people use it recreationally, they’re probably taking other illicit drugs at the same time in the mixture.”

But when it comes to over-the-counter K like you’d find in Nairobi, he says that snorting it delivers the drug too rapidly into the body, and since there’s no way to tell how much you’re taking, you run the risk of artificially spiking your blood pressure, which could result in bursting blood vessels and even death.

No one’s sure when Nairobi’s ketamine craze emerged, but it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. If anything, it seems to be on the rise.

Back on the balcony, heads begin to flutter and snap awake as the effects of the K slowly start to wear off. Hysterical laughter subsides and everyone slowly comes back their senses just long enough to realize we need a new batch of lines to keep the high up. The guys groggily shuffle around and repeat the process, the underside of the spoon turning a nasty shade of singed black.

“It’s just a thing, you know?” Naree says, again balancing the liquid over the flame and waiting for the fireworks. “It’s just like anything else. It’s just another way to get fucked up. Just another way to get down.”

More on ketamine:

The Sad Demise of Nancy Lee, One of Britain's Ketamine Casualties

Is Ketamine the New Miracle Drug?

Interview With a Ketamine Chemist