Alice had to follow the white rabbit to go down the rabbit hole, but all it takes is one pill to get someone down the K-hole, the height of drugged-out bliss.
Snort it, sip it or swallow it: users can choose the route that they want to take to get there. The vehicle? Ketamine. Known on Hong Kong streets as “K-jai,”, “Kit-Kat” or simply “K,” the drug is a horse tranquilizer that is being ingested by Hong Kong adolescents to reach a warm and weightless state that is comparable to floating.
What was once used only as an anesthetic in veterinary clinics is now the most popular recreational drug in Hong Kong among young people, according to the Hong Kong Central Registry of Drug Abuse (CRDA).
Why is ketamine so popular among the youth of a city where, for decades, heroin has ruled the streets?
The drug’s association with the dance culture may have set it on the road to a meteoric rise in popularity, but its chameleon-like nature that allows it to be used in different situations, and the misconceptions about its ramifications, have cemented it in its number-one place.
Ketamine is a commercially produced anaesthetic created in the form of an injectable, colourless liquid, which can be converted to a white crystalline powder through evaporation.
In its street manifestation, it normally comes in pill form, wrapped in a $10 note and sold for $110. One can usually procure it from dealers located in dance clubs, the street corners of red light districts in Mongkok or Wanchai, or – if you do not feel like venturing out – your friend’s friend probably ‘knows a guy’.
Since its appearance as a recreational drug in Hong Kong in the 1990s, the drug has enjoyed a rapid rise in popularity.
Figures provided by the CRDA showed that in 1995 there were no documented cases of ketamine abuse in Hong Kong. By 2002, the percentage of ketamine users out of all recorded illegal drug users was a startling 70 percent, dwarfing the percentage of heroin users, which was only 11 percent.
The dance club culture that infiltrated Hong Kong from the West brought with it the dance drug scene. As the culture has become increasingly widespread in Hong Kong, there has been a rapid ascent in popularity of recreational drugs.
Parting with the bedraggled and desperate drug abuser stereotype that is often associated with users of hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine, the poster child for recreational drugs is young, hip, cool and fun.
Adolescents believe that recreational drugs such as ketamine can turn a good night out into a better night out. Martin (not his real name), a 23-year-old student, said that recreational drugs add to the experience of clubbing.
‘If you party sober, maybe on a ranking of one to five, it’ll be a two,’ he said. ‘If you have alcohol, maybe it’ll be three, but if you take a drug, it’ll be four.’
Karen Joe Laidler, a criminology professor from the University of Hong Kong, said that people use recreational drugs in dance clubs because it changes the feeling of being high.
‘It [drugs] would take them from the level of dancing to kind of a higher level of moving outside their comfort zone,’ she said. ‘And being able to feel a sense of liberation, not through dancing, but through kind of a change in their mental state.’
Emma (not her real name) is a 20-year-old student and a regular ketamine user. ‘It [ketamine] is very accessible,’ she said. She admitted that she liked to do ketamine because of the way it made her feel.
‘It’s actually quite comforting at times,’ she said. ‘It makes you hallucinate, but in a good way. It’s gives a good club high, sometimes even better then drinking.’
Unlike other recreational drugs such as ecstasy, which is generally associated only with dance clubs and raves, ketamine can mold itself to be the right prescription for a variety of situations, according to Professor Laidler.
‘You don’t have to be in a party mood to use it,’ she said. ‘You can use it alone, you can use it in a group, you can use it at a party.’
Emma echoed this sentiment. ‘Sometimes you just do it because you’re bored, when you’re by yourself or even with friends.K is very accessible…(and) it’s different, after snorting it, you’d feel it more quickly,’ she said. ‘In comparison, E (ecstasy) would take perhaps 20 minutes or so.’
The fact that it’s easily accessible is certainly not harming its popularity.
Emma said that it normally does not take her more than a few calls. ‘It’s actually not that hard to get,’ she said. ‘There’s always links through friends of friends that you can call and get it from. If it (acquiring the drug) exceeds a couple of phone calls, I wouldn’t bother.’
Among drugs considered to be recreational drugs among young people, “one of the main sources of getting [these] drugs…is through friends,’ Professor Laidler said. ‘Most studies have shown that drugs are disseminated through friendship networks.’
Martin also buys his recreational drugs from friends. ‘[I] hardly ever [buy drugs] from strangers,’ he said. ‘That’s dangerous.’
But is the act of taking the drugs not a dangerous activity in itself?
A lot of users don’t think so. Professor Laidler said that one of the lures of ketamine for Hong Kong youth is that ‘it’s perceived as not having any short- or long-term consequences.’
But pharmacologist Rebecca Lu thinks that it is time for Hong Kong ketamine users to get out of the K-hole and take off their rose-coloured glasses.
‘We usually say that it (ketamine) is as bad as alcohol, cannabis and cocaine mixed together,’ she said. ‘When you go on ketamine, you go into this spiritual world of your own, and it’s really hard for some people to go back to reality because their drug world is so amazing. Long-term users are then susceptible to serious bladder and kidney damage.’
She noted that even occasional users are vulnerable to serious consequences: ‘Ketamine taken at overdose can cause respiratory depression, causing lungs to collapse and resulting in death.’
Paul (not his real name), a 22-year-old student who said he preferred ecstasy, found other reasons for not taking ketamine. ‘I’ve heard bad things about it,’ he said. Dealers sometimes “mix shards of glass with K to make it heavier, because you pay per gram.’
But Emma is willing to take the risk. ‘I didn’t know about that (the glass shards), but I don’t think it will be that big of a factor to make me stop taking it,’ she said. ‘If I’ve done it already and I was fine, one more ingredient won’t make a difference.’
Martin, who takes both ecstasy and ketamine, said that for him the situation determines whether or not he would use drugs, not the consequences. ‘Of course I am (aware of the negative effects),’ he said. ‘But a lot of things are bad for you. For me, the key is moderation.’
He went on to say that he would do ‘kind of like a cost-benefit analysis’ before using drugs, taking in factors like the event, how it was already going, and who he was with.
Paul and Emma both said that tougher laws on possession would not dissuade them from using drugs. ‘I probably wouldn’t bring the drugs out (to clubs),’ said Emma. ‘But I’d just do it at home or at a friend’s house.’
But harsher laws might deter some users. Martin, for example, said: ‘If the stricter drug law meant capital punishment for possession or something, then of course I would stop using.’
Although the chance of capital punishment being used in Hong Kong for people possessing small amounts of recreational drugs is as likely as the government sweeping the city clean of drugs, people should still think twice about ketamine.
Alice may have found wonderland at the bottom of the rabbit hole, but, if people like Rebecca Lu are right, there is no wonderland at the bottom of the K-hole.