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Home > Culture and Society

Smile Like You Ketamine It

9 September 2005

Here's the bad (oh so very, very bad news): kids are taking ketamine. Ketamine is a drug. It's a drug (oh no!) that's got something to do with Vietnam. (Vietnam - death - spectacular American failure - bad films - oh no!) It's bigger than ecstacy. (Ecstacy - Leah Betts - thirty-plus deaths per year - bad music - help!) But it's OK. The good news is that while ketamine, a powerful tranquilliser used by vets on horses which makes users feel like they're swimming in mildly hallucinogenic yogurt, is presently an uncontrolled substance running wild and free, the government plan to make it a Class C drug by the end of the year. Phew.

This week the results of a clubbing survey by information body DrugScope were published, and news sources proceeded to puke what they considered to be the salient details all down their fronts, like teenagers at the bitter end of a legal but lethal drinking binge. 'Vietnam drug is "the new ecstacy"', gasped the front page of London's baby-Mail freebie Metro. You can sense the relief in a right-wing paper when it gets hold of a drug story - for one thing, it's an opportunity to get terribly righteous, safe in the knowledge that No One In His Right Mind could quibble. For another, it gives them the chance to kick back, relax and pop the party poppers of hysterical cod-scientific soundbite. Also a drug story rather makes fact-checking a redundant part of the newsmaking process - it's all about wallowing in glutinous sensationalism, and planting associations like it's a game of tag in hell. And they rush headlong at the most unlikely 'street' name they can, knowing how demonic these sound to people who don't take drugs, but seemingly unaware of how comic they sound to people who do. 'Techno smack', anyone? (Actually, doing a line of ketamine on the heels of a line of coke is known as a 'Calvin Klein', which you couldn't make up. Unless you were on drugs, or something.)

Most of Metro's story aligns well enough with the details of the survey - which explains that ketamine is rising in popularity, courteously pushing down the price of ecstacy to as little as 50p - but naturally it's written up as to put the fear of God into readers. They almost animate the drug, put a little gargoyle face on it. The intimation is that all these hedonistic young professionals are willingly zombifying themselves; a drug rehab worker explains that you can spot ketamine users in a club 'because they're not dancing, they're sitting down in a bit of a vegetative state'. There's no mention of these undead souls going
out into society and bringing about the fall of same, but as an intelligent person, the paper expects you to fill in that particular gap.

The dull truth of the matter is that ketamine is no newer than ecstacy (which was first tinkered with in the 1920s). Recreational drug use is cyclical, like some little microclimate where it snows heavily for a few years and then the sun (or the techno smack) comes out. BBC Online, for one, wrote about illicit ketamine use more than five years ago. The media are amusingly and falsely slow on the uptake when it comes to what drug is currently en vogue - it's as if they don't want to attract any suspicion. At least 18 months must elapse from the first time a staffer samples a drug/tries it out on his unwitting girlfriend before it can get written up in the anonymous third person/tones of outrage. It's in your contract, look it up.

So now ketamine, which has been blizzarding about amongst those naughty 'young middle-class professionals looking for the ultimate weekend high' for some time now with no reported casualties, is rising up quite naturally on the wheel of fortune, to inevitably be classified by the government. It will slouch at its desk in Class C just next to the teeteringly reclassified cannabis. It will wait for some celebrity to clandestinely endorse it - in the alternative newsiverse, Pete Doherty 'sells' the idea of crack to impressionable young people as surely as if he were sponsored by Freebase and Sons. Sooner or later it will acquire its own casualty rumours to go with the silly names (KKK.
Klusterf**k. Shirley Bassey's free radicals.). DrugScope explain that the drug has 'unpleasant side effects [of] nausea, vomiting, and at the highest doses people can collapse and lose consciousness.' A bit like alcohol, then, only somehow worse.

Worse how? We'll find out soon, because once the government has classified a drug it proceeds to do lots of sensible, unbiased research. Doesn't it? Oh.

It's entertaining enough when the media follow the same default script - it's just not so funny when the government does. But at least this way the part of your brain known as Hasselhoff's Euphonium will remain unliquefied.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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