B.C. has become the top destination for smuggling ketamine into Canada, much of it coming from Hong Kong and China, according to data obtained by CBC News from the Canada Border Services Agency.
Ketamine hydrochloride — also known as "Special K" — is a dissociative anesthetic used in medicine and as a recreational drug, which has also been used to facilitate "date rape."
The popular party drug, which is increasingly consumed by teens with sometimes tragic results, has been seized in some high-value busts at B.C. entry points in recent years.
The CBSA says it has seized over $128 million worth of ketamine at B.C.'s border points over the past six years — a dollar value more than double that of ketamine seizures in Ontario and Quebec combined.
Just over two years ago, authorities discovered 1,000 kilograms of ketamine, which they valued at $15 million, in a container shipment of coffee mugs from Hong Kong.
Earlier this month, three people charged in that case were sentenced to prison terms of 10 to 16 years.
The judge found that the ketamine was likely destined to be combined with other drugs such as ecstasy.
"The target for the ketamine, had it been trafficked as planned, was for young people," Judge Jane McKinnon said in her judgment.
Gateway to oblivion
Langley's Patricia Jaramillo, now 20, first tried ketamine when she was in her early teens. She said it was "cheap and easy and around," and she liked the near-paralysis and sense of oblivion it gave her.
"You get to a point where your brain disconnects with your body," she said.
According to Health Canada, ketamine is a rapid-acting anesthetic drug, and is used mainly by veterinarians but also sometimes in human surgery.
It alters the way the brain handles memory, pain, and peceptions of the surrounding environment, and "can make a person feel a sense of detachment, as if their mind is separated from their body," Health Canada says.
But for Jaramillo, it also led to a downward spiral. She said she almost died several times as she found herself increasing her doses, then trying other drugs.
"It's definitely a gateway drug," she said.
Date rape potential
Katelyn Fister, a clinical counsellor with Langley Community Services Society, says ketamine is increasingly popular among young people at parties and raves, where it can often be found mixed into ecstasy pills.
But its paralyzing effects, and the fact that it is odourless and tasteless when dissolved in liquids, can give it an even more sinister use.
"It's kind of the perfect combination of factors ... if someone is looking to take advantage of someone else sexually," Fister said.
Health Canada agrees, saying ketamine's sedative effects have been used to prevent victims from resisting sexual assault, and for this reason it is sometimes thought of as a date rape drug.
There are also concerns that street-traded ketamine could be contaminated with other chemicals.
Border cuts questioned
Health Canada says that commercial ketamine is often a liquid, and the street drug is usually sold as a powder.
And while some illegally traded ketamine is diverted from legimitate pharmaceutical supply chains, police say some of the drugs' provenance is dubious.
"Our concern is that if kids knew what was in these products and conditions in which they are made, which are filthy — there's other things getting in there — that they would be horrified," said Surrey RCMP Sgt. Duncan Pound.
Border seizures data
The Canada Border Services Agency keeps a database of all illegal goods it seizes at land-border crossings, ports, airports and mail centres. The commodities include guns, child pornography and drugs.
CBC News requested the CBSA database five years ago under the Access to Information Act but received only partial information in a PDF format. Following a complaint to the federal information commissioner, CBC News successfully argued the agency had an obligation to release the information in database format, although a second complaint to receive more complete records was unsuccessful.
Since 2007, the CBSA recorded just 20 seizures of shipments of ketamine at B.C.'s border points — which include airports, land crossings, ports, and mail centres — but estimated the value of some of those individual shipments in the tens of millions of dollars.
Experts estimate drug seizures capture only about five per cent of the drugs actually making it in to Canada.
The union representing Canada's border guards says federal government austerity measures, including the 10 per cent CBSA cut in 2012, are giving smugglers and organized crime the upper hand.
"You can rest assured that the drugs that are coming in right now, actually at the port in Vancouver — you're going to see a significant increase of that," says Jean-Pierre Fortin, president of the Customs and Immigration Union.
The union says further cuts to Canada's border services just means that more drugs like ketamine will keep flowing into B.C.