China calls for the UN to classify Ketamine as illicit narcotic

On the club scene the drug Ketamine, or 'Special K', is so popular and abused that China wants it reclassified and restricted worldwide. But in developing countries the same drug has a legitimate, life-saving use as the go-to anesthetic for surgeries where doctors are scarce.
China wants ketamine put on an international list of illicit narcotics because of its rampant abuse but doctors around the world warn that it could cut off safe and affordable anesthetic to the developing world. (REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu)
​ You might be surprised to hear an ad warning of the dangers of ketamine use, especially if you're not sure exactly what Ketamine is ... But the drug, sometimes also known as Special K, is sold on the black-market all over the world, including here in Canada, as a club drug.
In Sierra Leone, with a population of six million people, we only have four physician anaesthetists. There is usually no source of oxygen and very poor facilities for intubation. We cannot do without ketamine. For God's sake, leave ketamine alone. - Dr. Eva Hanciles, anesthesiologist who heads intensive care unit, only tertiary care hospital in Sierra Leone

It's sought after for its hallucinogenic high. And it's become a particularly problematic drug these days in China. The ad posted above is from the government of Hong Kong. The government in Beijing is locked in its own battle with the drug. China wants ketamine put on an international list of illicit narcotics. But that's turning out to be a tough pill to swallow for some developing countries where ketamine is frequently used as an inexpensive, and easy to administer, replacement for anaesthetic.

Ketamine is especially useful in places such as Sierra Leone because it can be used without giving the patient a breathing tube... meaning that nurses and doctors who aren't specialists can administer it. And that's crucial in places without extensive health care systems.

Tomorrow, the United Nations' Office on Drug Control will hold a vote on a Chinese proposal to reclassify ketamine, which would put it on the international schedule of "psychotropic" substance. This would put it alongside drugs such as LSD and Mescalin. And it would severely impede developing countries from access to ketamine.

Dr. Jason Nickerson is a Clinical Investigator at the Bruyère Research Institute in Ottawa. He is in Vienna, Austria to lobby the Commission on Narcotic Drugs to reject China's resolution. 

On the whole, heroin is still the drug of choice across China. but in some areas, that's changing. In South China, Ketamine is reported to be the most popular of all recreational drugs. In 2008, the United Nations called Ketamine "the most abused drug in Hong Kong." In 2009, Ketamine seizures were reported to be increasing at twice the rate of cocaine seizures.

There are some suggestions that the use of ketamine has leveled off somewhat in the last few years. But the damage done can still be significant. But despite the damage it's causing in China, it's saving lives in the developing world.

Bisola Obembe knows first-hand how important Ketamine can be. She is a practicing anesthesiologist from Nigeria and the chair of the African Regional Section of the World Federation of Societies of Anesthesiologists. She was in London, England. 

We did reach out to governments on this story. We contacted Health Canada. No one was available for an interview but the department sent a statement which reads in part:

"Canada is aware of the potential negative public health impact that the international scheduling of ketamine would have in developing countries, where it is a critical medicine. Canada will register these concerns during discussions of this matter at the 58th Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna."

We also contacted China's Embassy in Ottawa. No one there was able to provide a comment. They directed us to China's Permanent Mission in New York. They directed us to the mission in Vienna. We have not hear back as of this morning.


This segment was produced by The Current's Lara O'Brien, Ines Colabrese and Pacinthe Mattar.