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Unseen problems of HK party drug

REVELLERS who snort the animal tranquilizer ketamine for a hallucinogenic high may face incontinence and other health problems as new dangers of the drug start showing up in long-term studies.

Doctors in Hong Kong, where ketamine took off as a party drug about a decade ago, have recently found that heavy users have poor bladder control and are prone to long-term liver damage.

"The worst cases are in young people who have to empty their bladders every 15 minutes. They can't even take a bus ride without alighting and going to the toilet," said Ben Cheung, a psychiatrist who works with ketamine users.

"Their kidney functions are affected and they are so young," he said.

"This is a serious health consequence that we never expected because it has never been seen anywhere else."

Incontinence is not the only problem for these drug users, who sniff the powdery hallucinogenic that looks much like cocaine but costs a 10th of the price.

A recent study in Hong Kong of 97 drug users, most of whom primarily took ketamine, found that over 60 percent of them suffered depression, 31 percent complained of poor concentration and 23 percent had memory problems.

"It shocked the users. Never did they think it would affect brain function and they care about that," said Tatia Lee, who was a member of the team conducting the study.

Ketamine users usually mix the drug, synthesised in 1962 as a veterinary anaesthetic, with other substances.

To increase profits, dealers add powder from paint scraped off walls, chalk and crushed glass which gives the same shimmer of good quality ketamine.

"It's difficult to pin certain effects to a drug but ketamine is still the primary substance," Cheung said.

Ketamine edged out heroin in Hong Kong around 2000 and then overtook marijuana.

Hardcore addicts spend just HK$100 (US$13) daily for three hits of the drug.

In 2008, Hong Kong had an estimated 8,309 psychotropic drug users, of whom 5,042 used ketamine, according to one study.

Although raids by anti-drug agencies in Hong Kong in recent years have driven ketamine away from nightspots, its abundant supply and ease of use has led to ever younger people becoming addicted and the drug being consumed just about anywhere.


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