Ketamine 'should be Class B drug'

Party drug ketamine should be upgraded to a Class B substance, Government advisers have said.

The drug, also known as Special K, is currently rated Class C but the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) has recommended that it should be reclassified because of the physical and psychological harms it causes.

When asked whether the Home Secretary would take on the advice, ACMD chairman Professor Les Iversen joked: "I was also told that if you want to criticise the Home Secretary you should resign first from the ACMD, which I'm not going to do. You give advice and it's not always taken, that's the nature of our business."

Former ACMD chair Professor David Nutt resigned in November 2009 over the decision to reclassify cannabis from a Class C to a Class B drug.

Earlier this year, Professor Iversen warned that ketamine users as young as 20 are having to have their bladders removed due to heavy consumption of the party drug.

Originally designed as an anaesthetic and tranquilliser, often used on horses during veterinary surgery, ketamine was banned as a recreational drug in 2006.

An estimated 120,000 people misused the drug in England and Wales during 2012/13, figures suggest.

In March last year, Home Secretary Theresa May commissioned the ACMD to refresh its advice on ketamine, which was last reviewed in 2004.

"We are recommending increasing the classification of ketamine from Class C to Class B," said Dr Paul Dargan, chair of the ACMD's ketamine working group.

"That's largely based on the medical harms associated with ketamine, particularly the bladder-related harms and more anecdotal evidence of social harms."

Prof Iversen said: "The harm ketamine posed to users prompted the ACMD to recommend its control in 2004.

"Since then, we have seen evidence of a worrying trend of serious bladder damage occurring among frequent users. In some cases this has led to young people having their bladder removed.

"It is a potentially dangerous drug at high doses and with frequent use, with serious psychological and physical implications for those who misuse it. This is why we have recommended it is re-classified to Class B and that there is an improved public health message around the risks associated with ketamine."

The drug has been used legitimately for more than 50 years, but has become a popular recreational drug, particularly among nightclub users and males aged 20 to 24 around the country, the ACMD said.

However, figures show that the number of people taking it has declined slightly over the last year.

The ACMD also made a series of additional recommendations for health bodies, the new Chief Coroner, and public health officials.

Users of the club drug need to be made aware of the long-term risk of using the drug, the ACMD said. Awareness campaigns should be run at festivals and in nightclubs to raise awareness of the effects on users - who are vulnerable to rape, robbery and assault because of the way the drug can make people unaware of their environment.

The Council has also recommended that ministers consider tightening the way the drug is controlled by pharmacies and hospitals. They said that ketamine is currently listed as "schedule four" among pharmacies and hospitals, which means rather little control, whereas veterinary practices already treat it as a category two drug. While many hospitals are treating it as a higher schedule drug, the Council has recommended that it should be listed as a "schedule two" drug to ensure it is treated the same way across the board.

They also called for the drug to be delivered in smaller doses so discarded medicines are not misused.

The ACMD said there is little data about the number of deaths caused by the club drug and also called on the new Chief Coroner to promote the documentation of substance-related deaths.

Crime Prevention Minister Norman Baker said: "We are grateful to the ACMD for its advice on ketamine, which was commissioned by the Home Secretary last year. We will respond in due course."

Prof Nutt, who is now chair of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs and head of the Department of Neuropsychopharmacology and Molecular Imaging at Imperial College London, said: "The Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs and I agree that if drugs are to be classified based on their harms then the evidence shows ketamine should be upgraded to Class B, which affects how illegal handling of ketamine is viewed.

"However, and this is very important, whilst the 'class' affects how we consider illegal use, the 'schedule' is the classification for legal use by vets and medics and should not be changed. Ketamine is currently a schedule four drug, meaning that it can be easily used in daily work by vets and medics. If it is upgraded to schedule two, as ACMD recommend, that will mean it will have to be kept under lock and key so this will impede necessary clinical use as an anaesthetic as vets will not be able to use it in the field, for example - so animals will suffer.

"Changing the schedule is due to fears that the drug is being taken from clinical stores but there is no evidence that is happening, so there is absolutely no need for this change."

Harry Shapiro, director of communications and information at charity DrugScope, said: " While the reclassification of ketamine from Class C to Class B may be logical given the current legal framework, we do not believe that this will be sufficient to address the public health problems posed by the drug.

"Drug users, nightclub and festival staff and healthcare practitioners all need to be better informed about ketamine, its effects and potential for dependency. This is especially important in general health settings when people present with unexplained bladder problems, to prevent long-term and potentially life-changing health issues."

If the drug is upgraded to Class B, people caught with it in their possession could face up to five years in prison and ketamine dealers could be jailed for up to 14 years. Other Class B drugs include cannabis, amphetamines, such as speed, and barbiturates.

Vicky Unwin, whose 21-year-old daughter Louise drowned in the bath after taking Ketamine in March 2011, said she was pleased that the ACMD report highlighted the "terrible risks" of taking the drug.

She said she welcomed reclassification of Ketamine as it highlighted the dangers. But she said she believed that education was key to dissuading young people from taking the drug.

"I am very pleased if Ketamine is becoming recognised as a more dangerous drug than the public have been aware of so far," she said.

"A lot of people say 'if Ketamine is so dangerous why is it a Class C drug?' That is what a lot of people who try do defend Ketamine say.

"But in principle, I do not believe that classification stops people from taking drugs.

"If young people really thought for a moment that by getting used to taking Ketamine they would start to become incontinent, peeing blood and possibly eventually having their bladder replaced, and it will affect their sexual activity for the rest of their lives, then they would never take it."

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