Ketamine: Societal Threat or Health Issue?

“The war on drugs is not working!” is the battle cry currently ringing around the world. More and more countries are quietly, or not so quietly in the case of Uruguay, moving towards a decriminalized, health-based policy. Despite growing global rhetoric in support of decriminalization, yesterday the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs officially recommended to Parliament that ketamine (also known as Special K and K) be reclassified as a class B substance. A change from ketamine’s current class C status (joining the ranks of amphetamines and cannabis) increases user’s maximum prison sentence from two to five years. A supplier of ketamine would face up to 14 years under a reclassification in addition to an unlimited fine.

Why this sudden recommendation when evidence suggests that a health-based, decriminalized approach to illicit substances works best? The ACMD sighted several studies as the basis for their recommendation. Links were drawn between long-term, frequent ketamine use with severe bladder and kidney issues. In fact, studies suggest that 26 percent of all ketamine users report suffering bladder issues at some point while using. Problems range from minor complications such as frequent urination to the severe resulting in bladder removal. There is no denying that ketamine does pose significant health risks to users, not unlike risks posed by alcohol and tobacco use. If abused frequently over a long period of time, alcohol can lead to heart problems, high blood pressure, stroke, cancer, and liver disease. The only difference is that alcohol and tobacco are legal to those of age and fail to appear in any governmental classification system.

Increased criminalization will prove completely ineffective when it comes to combatting ketamine’s health risks. “Great,” stated Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release, “they [the ACMD] have just managed to increase the harms of criminalization, what about introducing a policy that reduces all harms?” Tougher drug sentences only criminalize people while failing to address resulting health issues. Not to mention that drug crime reduction has proven over and over again to fail. In fact, it would become easier to help people suffering from ketamine’s negative consequences if the drug was decriminalized or even legalized. The only way to successfully combat health risks associated with ketamine is to take a health-based approach rather than criminalization.

The reclassification of ketamine would create many more risk factors associated with the substance including an increased synthetic market for ketamine-like substances. These concoctions are often exponentially more dangerous than the real drug, resulting in more fatalities and long-term health issues. It should be noted that ketamine is not a physically addictive drug and fatal overdoses from ketamine are extremely uncommon. It is much more likely that a user will pass out before an overdose threshold is reached. Reclassification of ketamine would also effectively end all current research regarding possible treatment benefits of PTSD, depression, and alcohol dependency.

While studies found that risks posed by ketamine are primarily health-related, there is very little ‘social harm’ associated with the drug. An ex-ketamine user currently suffering from clots of blood when she urinates says that she never would have done ketamine if she had been aware of its effect on the body. Parliament should be considering how to educate people about the harms associated with ketamine so that informed decisions can be made. The bottom line is that drug policy is a health issue, not a criminal justice one. Let us hope Parliament ignores ACMD’s advice and sees sense, for the sake of everyone’s bladder.