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.
A Ketamine trip lasts about 45 minutes, and comes on fast. "If you snort a 20-bag of K, it's like you've lit a fuse," says Paul. "You've got about three minutes to find somewhere and get ready." Last month in the "chill room" at a rave in downtown Phoenix, Paul and three friends bought four bags of Special K and hunkered down in a corner, where each snorted the contents of the bag through a straw, then leaned back against the wall as the drug took effect.
Two of them smiled at first, but their faces soon went slack. All remained still, and no one said a word for the next 15 minutes. They had been asked to indicate when they started to come down, and Paul was the first to speak. "Coming back," he slurred, with obvious effort. No one moved or spoke for another 10 minutes, when one of Paul's friends slowly stood up, said, "Whooo!", tottered back against the wall and slid down. Asked to describe where he'd been, the psychonaut replied slowly, "Strange." Pause. "I just don't have the . . ." he trailed off. Someone took a guess: "Words?" "Yes," he said, drunkenly nodding like a point had been made. "Words." A few minutes later, he gained his feet again and made for the bathroom like a tightrope walker, inching fearfully along with hands outstretched for balance.
Ketamine is classified as a "dissociative" drug, one that temporarily severs the connection between mind and body. In layman's terms, it sets up roadblocks along nerve pathways that allow just enough information through to put the body on autopilot. Unlike most anesthetics, respiration and circulation are not depressed. The user remains conscious, but the primary senses are shattered and swept away. The mind fills the sudden void with powerful hallucinations.
In 1978, California neuroscientist Dr. John Lilly experimented with Ketamine by injecting himself with the drug every day for 100 days. Lilly, who invented the isolation tank and pioneered communication between humans and dolphins, was the subject for the character played by William Hurt in the 1980 movie Altered States. During his experiment, he claimed to make repeated contact with extraterrestrials who worked at Earth Coincidence Control, a sort of cosmic regulatory agency that directs coincidences on Earth in such a way to prod humanity along a preset evolutionary path.
Not all Special K users plummet themselves into the K Hole. Many of them just do "bumps," or small pinches of the drug, which produce a much lighter effect. Users say a bump feels roughly like a combination of alcohol and nitrous oxide, or laughing gas. They get lightheaded, and feel as if they're walking on sponges, or moving underwater. There's also a sense of being slightly outside oneself.
Patrick, a 29-year-old who works in the movie industry, snorted a bump of Special K at the grand opening of a popular Scottsdale club night in February. "I felt like I was just to the side of where I really was, watching myself move through the crowd like I was watching a movie with my face pressed right up against the screen," he says. "People talked to me and I had trouble responding. I was definitely twisted. . . . But I could keep it together if I tried."
Inside the K Hole, the out-of-body experience is more severe. The mind grapples for understanding of what, where and why it is, and there is a loss of individuality that can be terrifying. Dawn, a 26-year-old health-care worker from Phoenix, snorted a line of Ketamine at a gay club in Washington, D.C., last summer. "I just remember bending over with my head in my hands, thinking I was nothing compared to everything else," she says. "I thought maybe I'd taken too much and was going to die, and I was really scared. But at the same time, it didn't feel like it mattered if I was alive or not. I sort of got in touch with my own total insignificance."
Despite the psychic battering--bad trips on Special K are common--Dawn was probably not in physical danger. The overdose threshold for powdered Ketamine is 10 mg per pound of body weight, which means a person who weighs 150 pounds would have to snort 1.5 grams (10 20-bags) to put himself at risk of an overdose. There is no reversal for a Ketamine overdose, however, no adrenaline shot to the heart. Just muscle convulsions, seizures, prolonged paranoia and violent, irrational behavior.
Cut with tranquilizers to negate the hallucinatory "emergence reaction," Ketamine is still used for human surgery in Third World countries, and elsewhere on patients for whom other anesthetics are deemed too dangerous, like babies and old people. Veterinary use is far more commonplace. If your cat or dog's been "fixed," chances are they were shot up with Ketamine (although vets also mix the drug with tranquilizers to save Fido or Mittens a trip through the K Hole).
Ketamine was first developed and manufactured by the pharmaceutical megacorp Parke-Davis in 1962. During the Vietnam War, it was commonly issued to U.S. combat troops as a "buddy drug" battlefield anesthetic, since it acts fast (injections take effect in seconds) and, unlike most anesthetics, requires little training to administer safely.
But while Ketamine is a safe anesthetic, anesthetics are not safe for regular, recreational use. Users feel groggy and mentally sluggish after a Ketamine trip. That perceptible hangover gradually fades, but it actually takes the body several weeks to fully recover from a single hard dose of Ketamine. Plus, users rapidly build up a tolerance. No medical studies on the long-term effects of recreational Ketamine use have been published. However, anesthesiologists say heavy, regular hits of Ketamine over a sustained period--like doing enough to go into four or five K Holes a week for three permanently damage the nerves' pathways.
And while Ketamine is not physically addictive, some users develop a psychological craving. "I definitely start to get bored if I haven't done it in a while," says Paul. "I miss the intensity of the experience . . . the break from this reality." He shrugs. "Some people go to the movies. I do K." Paul says he first tried Ketamine in January. He did it twice in February, then four or five times in March. Last month, Paul says he took eight separate, heavy doses of Ketamine, sometimes going into a K Hole twice a night. Settings varied from a nightclub, a house party and the aforementioned rave to a Sedona camping trip.
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"One time was just spur of the moment," he says. "I called up a friend to see if he wanted to hang out, and he was like, 'Yeah, I got a vial over here,' so I went over and we just spaced out in his living room." Paul has noticed no negative effects from his K use, and gives the drug "10 thumbs up."
Ryan, a 16-year-old from north Scottsdale, isn't so free with his praise. He first took Ketamine in February. "I'd never snorted anything before, and I had to get past that, because it made me feel like a junkie," he says. "But it was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it, the sense of traveling somewhere and coming back in just an hour. So I kept trying it." Ryan says his use peaked in May, when he was doing Ketamine every weekend. "Then one night, I took way too much and completely lost control. I couldn't feel myself breathing for a long time, and I thought I was going to die. And I was like, 'If I'm going to die, please just get it over with, because this is so miserable.' Now, just hearing the words 'Special K' makes me want to puke."
Several of Ryan's friends have started doing Ketamine in the last few months, he says, and that concerns him. "I don't think you expand your mind with this drug," he says. "My friends who do it, they're all creative, intelligent people. And when they're on it, they don't look like they're thinking intelligent or creative thoughts. They just look like they're gone.