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The warning on the vial is clear. "CAUTION: Federal law restricts this drug to use by or on the order of a licensed veterinarian." Sammy, 24, clicks a metal tongue-pierce against the back of his teeth and gently pries out the vial's rubber stopper with a pair of needle-nose pliers. He's wearing oversize jeans, an Alien Workshop tee shirt, and a dog chain around his neck. His hair is shaved close and dyed to a bright-yellow stubble. All in all, Sammy doesn't look much like a licensed veterinarian. He's not. He's a drug dealer.
Inside the glass vial is 10 ml of Ketamine Hydrochloride, a small-animal anesthetic marketed to veterinarians under brand names like Ketalar and Ketaset. Sammy sells it as "Special K," a powerful, newly fashionable street drug in the Valley that numbs the body and spirals the mind to a nether region of consciousness users call the "K Hole."
"You sort of leave the realm of yourself, and become lights and colors," reports Paul, a 24-year-old sound engineer from Tempe who takes Ketamine once or twice a week. "When you're in a K Hole, time isn't something you worry about, and you can't really move. Well, it's not that you can't move, it's more that you deeply question the whole concept of moving."
While some users shoot up liquid Ketamine, the drug is far more popular in powdered "Special K" form, which is either mixed into a drink or snorted. The street price for Special K in the Valley is $80 per gram.
Hunched over the counter of his Tempe condo's kitchen, Sammy carefully pours two vials of Ketamine into a Pyrex baking dish. He plans to go club-hopping in Scottsdale tonight, and wants to get a pocketful of quarter-gram "20-bags" ready for sale. The first step is to boil the Ketamine down to crystal, or, as Sammy puts it, "You gotta cook the shit." The recipe is simple: Bake for 30 minutes at 300 degrees, then chop and serve. "Don't put K in a microwave," Sammy says. "It splatters."
Thirty-four minutes later, Sammy dons an oven mitt and pulls out the Pyrex. The Ketamine is now a thin, white flake about the size of a compact disc. He gingerly breaks the crystal into shards with an ATM card, then uses a razor blade to chop the Ketamine into fine powder. Sammy cuts two lines off the top for himself, then uses a digital scale to portion the rest into 17 tiny, blue plastic bags. Veterinarians pay about $6 per vial of Ketamine. Sammy pays $100 per 10-vial pack to a source who works at a veterinary supply house in the Midwest. His expected profit for the night is $320.
When he first started dealing Ketamine in January, Sammy says, he sold about 10 vials a week. Now he sells between 40 and 50. "This shit is blowing up," he says. About a year ago, promoters of local raves (underground dance parties) began outlawing juice or water bottles with broken seals. That was the first sign that Special K was in the Valley (the promoters were trying to keep out dissolved Ketamine). Since then, Ketamine use at raves has greatly increased, and the drug has clearly spread beyond the rave subculture to conventional nightclubs and social circles ranging from Tempe musicians and Ahwatukee computer programmers to privileged Scottsdale teenagers. "It's the hype drug," says Sammy. "Every month, it's more. More people talking about it, more people trying it, more people liking it."
Ketamine is not a new ride for chemical thrill-seekers. Cyberpunk science-fiction author William Gibson referenced the drug in his best-selling 1984 novel Neuromancer, and it was briefly en vogue with New Age spiritualists 10 years ago.
The first reports of sustained, widespread Ketamine use, however, emerged from the London club scene in late 1993. The drug quickly hopped the Atlantic to New York, where it now rivals MDMA ("Ecstasy") as the drug of choice in gay clubs and underground dance venues like the Tunnel.
From there, the spread of Ketamine has been sporadic and hard to monitor. Detox centers and emergency rooms are primary sources for tracking hard drugs. Ketamine is habit-forming, and chronic use can damage the nervous system, but it is not physically addictive and carries a low risk of overdose. That makes it harder to track than drugs like cocaine and heroin.
Furthermore, Ketamine is not a controlled substance in most of the country. Arizona is an exception. In this state and four others--California, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Connecticut--Ketamine is a schedule III controlled substance (one lawmakers decided has a legitimate purpose but also a high potential for abuse). Illegal possession of Ketamine in Arizona is a felony, punishable by a minimum of one and a maximum of 3.75 years in prison for a first offense, plus fines. Still, Valley cops haven't exactly put Special K on their hit list.
"We've heard about it, we know it's out there, but we haven't dealt with it that much," says Phoenix Police Department spokesman Sergeant Mike Torres. "It's not a top priority. What else can I tell you? I don't know if it's caught on here or not."
The National Institutes of Health conducted a field study earlier this year that reported recent, sharp surges of Ketamine use in three cities: Dallas, Miami, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. The NIH study skipped Phoenix, but this much is clear to anyone who frequents local nightclubs and raves: There are a lot more people on Special K in the Valley now than six or even three months ago. That's obvious because people in a K Hole are easy to spot. They look dead--bodies paralyzed and eyes closed or, more creepy, open and unseeing.