&: Ketamine, China

A brief history, 1965 to 2000

A 1965 article in Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics has three physicians from the Departments of Pharmacology and Anesthesiology at the University of Michigan Medical Center experimenting with a novel compound—given the clinical investigation number CI-581—on twenty volunteers from a local prison (Domino et al., 1965).

CI-581 was cooked up from a recipe devised by Calvin Stevens for Parke, Davis & Co. (Jansen, 2004), a Michigan pharmaceutical company that passed the century mark before being swallowed up by Warner–Lambert, which was in turn swallowed up by Pfizer.

The drug was derived from phencyclidine (N-1-phenylcyclohexylpiperidine, or Sernyl/Sernylan, CI-395, or PCP, or any of the long list of street names, which includes gorilla biscuits, THC crystals, angel dust, sherm, click ’em juice, fry, embalming fluid, water, and wet). Parke, Davis & Co. had hoped phencyclidine would be an inexpensive and reliable anesthetic and analgesic, but early investigations found that many patients emerging from anesthesia experienced “vestibular and proprioceptive hallucinations with distortion of vision.” Women were usually in a “happily drunken state,” while men were sometimes “violent and aggressive” (Johnstone et al., 1959).

After discovering PCP’s side effects, it was studied for its “schizophrenomimetic” (Luby et al., 1959), or “psychotomimetic” effects as much as it was being studied for its analgesic properties (Huang & Lin, 2020). (See Taylor, 2011, and Morgan & Kagan, 1980, and Siegel, 1978, for more on PCP’s short history in human anesthesiology, its slightly longer history as a veterinary anesthetic, marketed as Sernylan, and its lengthy history as a recreational drug.)

CI-581, like its big brother PCP, was an arylcyclohexylamine, and it was hoped that it would be able to deliver anesthetic effects without plunging patients into psychedelic hell. It was put through animal trials first, resulting in “...an excited drunken state in rodents, but a cataleptoid immobilized state in pigeons” (Domino, 2010). It was promising enough to test it on prisoners.

The first human experiment seemed to prove that CI-581 was an effective anesthetic, and the researchers decided that it warranted “further pharmacologic and clinical trials.” It was, however, not free of the side effects that PCP had delivered.

The authors wrote that it was “imperative that a new terminology be developed for drugs of this type” and the state of mind they produced: “‘dissociative’ anesthesia” (a term one of the authors of the paper—Edward F. Domino, M.D.—credited to his wife, Toni) (Domino et al., 1965; Domino, 2010; Kelly, 1999; Li & Vlisides, 2016). In the “dissociative state,” patients could appear awake and breathing normally, but “unable to respond to sensory input” (Domino et al., 1965; Li & Vlisides, 2016).

And on top of that, like PCP, CI-581 produced hallucinations and emergence delirium:
At times some of the subjects had vivid dreamlike experiences or frank hallucinations. Some of these involved the recall of television programs or motion pictures seen a few days before, or they were at home with their relatives, or were in outer space, and so on. Some of these phenomena were so real that the subjects could not be certain they had not actually occurred. (Domino et al., 1965).
During the comedown, “almost all the subjects felt entirely numb,” which seems normal for a powerful anesthetic, but some of the patients also “stated that they had no arms or legs, or that they were dead.” Other patients had feelings of “estrangement or isolation,” or experienced “apathy, drowsiness, inebriation, hypnogenic states, and repetitive motor behavior” (Domino et al., 1965). These effects seem to have been milder than those reported with PCP, and I can’t find any references to violence.

The drug was patented by Parke, Davis & Co. a year later and renamed ketamine. In 1970, Ketalar became the first preparation of ketamine approved by the FDA (Li & Vlisides, 2016). It’s hard to track down where exactly ketamine first popped up as a recreational drug, but it seems to have been a matter of months before someone figured out it was a fun way to get high, since references to it as a drug of abuse appeared soon after it went into widespread use as an anesthetic (Jansen, 2004; Lankenau, 2006; Reier, 1971; Siegel, 1978). (Anesthesiologists, more than any other medical profession, love to get high, so good odds it was one of them that started experimenting [Oreskovich & Caldeiro, 2009].) “Street use of ketamine hydrochloride solutions was first noted in 1971 in San Francisco and Los Angeles,” and pills and powder preparations were floating around shortly after, sold under the name “K,” but also “1980 Acid,” and “Special LA Coke” (Siegel, 1978).

And maybe it would never have made it much further than the streets of California, but something took it to the next level. As a mainstream recreational drug, there are two plausible, parallel origin stories floated: the thousands of American servicemen that used it in Vietnam (Mabry et al., 2015; Mercer, 2009) returned to the States with a taste for it (Mion, 2017), creating fresh demand, and, on the other side of the Atlantic, Western hippies and ravers brought it back from Goa in the late 1970s and early 1980s, where it was readily available (D'Andrea, 2007; Mion, 2017; Oliver, 2017; but see Jansen, 2004, for the best history of ketamine as a recreational drug).

Another part of the ketamine story begins in 1978, with the publication of John Lilly’s The Scientist. Lilly, the son of a Minnesota beef baron, got a medical degree from University of Pennsylvania in 1942, and went on to screw around with the human brain for the United States government, which led him to invent the isolation tank, during his time at the National Institute of Mental Health. After that, he went rogue for a while, published a book about his experiments into LSD and isolation tanks (The Center of the Cyclone, 1972), a book about LSD and cetacean communication (Lilly on Dolphins: Humans of the Sea, 1975) (“...his lab’s unorthodox experiments—like jerking off dolphins to completion and injecting them with LSD—ultimately discredited the field for decades...” [Kabil, 2016]), and a book about LSD, theology, and the brain (Simulations of God: The Science of Belief, 1975)—and The Scientistwas his ketamine book.

The Scientist generated interest from psychotherapists that thought ketamine might be useful for their patients, and attracted a following for the drug from serious psychonauts that were always looking for unusual drugs to shoot into themselves (Mion, 2017). Lilly became the Leary of ketamine, writing about his experience taking high doses of ketamine in an isolation tank, during which he had visions of competing factions of aliens—the Earth Coincidence Control Office (ECCO) and the Solid State Intelligence that planned to put humanity on domed reservations—and the possibilities of using ketamine to talk to them (Lilly, 1997).

In the same year, Marcia Moore and Howard Altounian published Journeys into the Bright World. Moore was a hippie mystic-type and Altounian was a medical doctor; he supplied the drugs and she wrote extensive trip reports, experimenting with ketamine as an adjunct to “samadhi therapy” and meditation. Moore’s goal became “establishing the fairy-tale kingdom of ketamine solidly on earth” (Moore & Altounian, 1978).

After a 50 mg IV injection of ketamine hydrochloride, she had a vision of herself as a goddess:
"There is an interdimensional Egypt!" I exclaimed. "It hovers over our world, yearns over it, caresses it. Oh world, I love you!" All at once I was Isis herself, the virgin mother-goddess brooding lovingly over this world that I had created and was enfolding with arms like wings. I was making the sun shine, the crops flourish and the waters flow. The golden stream of my solicitude was turning the skies blue and the fields green. This microcosm was my beautiful garden of delight. I treasured every bit of it with undiscriminating concern. If anyone or anything there wanted to grow my blessing rested upon the endeavor, leaving it to some more austere male power to decree who or what might have to be weeded out. (Moore & Altounian, 1978, p. 79.)
When Moore visited Lilly following the publication of their twin ketamine books, he warned her to ease off. He had been bingeing on the drug and was convinced of its addictive potential. A year later, Moore went missing. Her husband—Altounian—traveled around the world, trying to track her down. Her body was found in 1981. She had climbed into a tree, shot all the ketamine she could before succumbing to unconsciousness, then frozen to death. (This account is from Jansen, 2004, which contains a chapter on the relationship between Lilly and Moore. It also notes that Lilly himself had some trouble with ketamine, including falling in a pool while sinking into a K-hole, but managed to live into his late 80s.)

Through the 1970s and 1980s in the United States, ketamine never took on the prominence of LSD or psilocybin, and there was no moral panic around it, like there was with PCP. It was being produced and promoted as an animal and human anesthetic, but it was too obscure for most people to ever come across it. Ketamine as a recreational drug was revived in the West in the 1980s and 1990s by UK dance culture in the 1980s and 1990s. It spread from UK scenes to other dance culture hotspots like New York and Berlin (Dotson et al., 1995; Jansen, 2004; Lankenau, 2006), then out to some limited mainstream prominence, often popping up in rave scare stories. It seemed a clear enough threat to kids that a 1997 Time Magazine article warned: “This is not your father's groovy toke” (Cloud, 1997). Despite the musical and literary celebrations of ketamine among young Western Bohemians, and all the scare stories, its use as a recreational drug was—and probably remains—more prevalent in Southeast Asia (“Ketamine: From India to Asia Part 1 – Malaysia,” 2012; Poshyachinda et al., 2005; Singh et al., 2013), Eastern Europe (Gorun et al., 2011; Institóris et al., 2013), India (Black market ketamine dealer caught on camera in India, 2011; Chakraborty et al., 2011), and the Middle East (Akghari et al., 2018; Kraus, 2016), where there was plenty floating around, often diverted from legitimate manufacturers (Jansen, 2004; Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 2008).

A brief history of ketamine in China, 1973 to 2009

China began producing ketamine in the early 1970s (谢荣, 1973, an unpublished internal document, supposedly describes the first clinical tests of domestically produced ketamine, guóchǎn lǜ’àntóng 国产氯胺酮; 北京市麻醉协作组, 1974; and see also: 封宗孝 et al., 1981; 吴锡文, 1975).

In 1979, China’s disastrous border war with Vietnam (known as the Defensive Counterattack against Vietnam, duì Yuè zìwèi fǎnjī zhàn 对越自卫反击战), may have killed 26,000 Chinese troops, with 37,000 wounded in the first clashes (Chen, 1987, p. 114), and it stretched on until the two countries nominalized ties in 1991. Ketamine was put to use as a battlefield anesthetic by PLA medics (靳冰, 1979; 罗炳炎 et al., 1983, which covers the 1979 clashes and the 1981 Battle of Faka Mountain; a brief entry in 中国医学科学年鉴, 1984 credits Li Fujin 李复金 as the first to use it in the Vietnam conflict, and suggests he wrote an article for 解放军医学杂志, which I haven’t managed to track down]).

Whether or not any PLA soldiers thought to experiment with surplus ketamine, we don’t know, but there don’t seem to be any references to ketamine as a drug of abuse in China before the late 1990s. At that point, the drug exploded in Hong Kong, possibly imported by expatriate partiers returning from Goa, who were taking advantage of pharmaceutical-grade ketamine diverted from labs in the Indian state of Maharashtra (Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 2008 might be giving undue credence to this origin story. Maybe someone was using ketamine as an ecstasy cut already and imported a bunch to Hong Kong, or maybe some enterprising Indian showed up with some kilos, or maybe some tuned-in drug pushers in Lan Kwai Fong decided to order some in from whoever they were getting their regular stock from. Who knows!)

Ketamine became a popular companion to ecstasy, which was already entrenched in Hong Kong, with low doses being used for the comedown (the idea that it was low dosage ketamine is speculation on my part, since I assume they were using it for an effect like what you would get from benzodiazepines for an MDMA comedown). After that, it started to filter down to working class partiers, who appreciated the mild vibes on KTV nights (Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 2008 is the best source of information on ketamine in Hong Kong).

In the year 2000, when cross-border travel was becoming routine, the number of partiers in Hong Kong reporting ketamine use started skyrocketed, jumping from one to 60% in 2001, up to 73% in 2006 (from total number of reported drug users under age 21, figures in Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 2008). Meanwhile, Hong Kongers went across the border to party in Shenzhen and Guangzhou:
“These people from Hong Kong come to our massage parlor ... after tossing their heads all night,” [this is a reference to yáotóuwán 摇头丸, fing tau jyun 揈頭丸/捹頭丸, “head-shaking pills,” a slang term for any sort of synthetic drug in pill form, from the style of dancing usually practiced after taking it] said a masseur in Shenzhen. “Their necks are so stiff we need to use all our strength for them to feel even a little effect. Some interrupt the massage session and snort drugs right in front of us.” (Lyn, 2007.)
(How many were really going across? Maybe not that many! “Persons arrested by the Customs at the above checkpoints [Lowu and Land Boundary Control Points and China Ferry Terminal] below the age of 21 and whose offences involved psychotropic substances also rose from four in 1998 to 20 in 1999. However, statistics and the significance of cases collected so far do not suggest that Hong Kong people crossing the boundary to take drugs has become a major trend” [Legislative Council Panel on Security Psychotropic Substance Abuse in Hong Kong, 2001]. It’s a pain in the ass to get across the border just to get high, and if you’re going to get caught with drugs somewhere, choose Hong Kong over the Mainland.)

It’s hard to say at that point where the drugs were coming from and why they were cheaper in the Mainland. Ketamine was being produced just across the border in Mainland China, but was it cheaper there because it was diverted from legitimate domestic production?

As late as 2007, a gram of ketamine sold for $130 HKD (about $17 USD) in Hong Kong and about 100 RMB (about $12 USD) in Shenzhen, suggesting a markup was placed on it for crossing the border into Hong Kong, rather than the other way around (of course, maybe it was just possible to charge more in LKF than Luohu) (“Moving towards a New Era: 1997-2009,” 2010, p. 469). The first seizures of ketamine were made in Hong Kong in 1999 (Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Narcotics Division, Security Bureau, 2006), and Hong Kong Customs seized very little drugs at the ports of entry into Mainland China. In fact there were no seizures of ketamine by Hong Kong Customs at the border before 2001, when a mere 48.5 kilograms were nabbed. The seizures of ketamine at ports of entry didn't break the 100 kilogram mark, except in 2005 and 2008 (Most of these figures are from “Moving towards a New Era: 1997-2009,” 2010, p. 473, and flip through the rest of this history of Hong Kong Customs for more on ketamine). There were drugs coming back into Hong Kong over the border, but maybe not large quantities of ketamine. (“Moving towards a New Era: 1997-2009,” 2010 has more on amounts seized.)

Out of the 325 kilos of ketamine seized by customs in 2008, 307 of them came from one load stopped at the airport. That load, packed into speaker boxes, came from India, via Singapore, frequently used as a transshipment point for drugs into North America. Customs officials suggested that all or most of the load was destined for the United States or other overseas markets, (Lo, 2008).

Was the ketamine being used in Shenzhen by Hong Kongers diverted from legitimate domestic sources, then, or did it come from overseas? I don’t know. Maybe at first, but that couldn’t last long. The pharmaceutical companies that once turned out battlefield anesthetic for brave PLA boys in the jungles of Vietnam must have been getting loose with their supply.
China has five factories licensed to make and export ketamine, and they account for the majority of the K that ends up on Hong Kong's streets. … William Ng, who heads Hong Kong's Customs Drug Investigation Bureau, says most of the K in the territory is coming straight from the mainland, usually through triad channels. According to Ng, wholesale powdered ketamine is obtained with relative ease from legitimate manufacturers on the mainland and transported into Hong Kong by mules. In its single largest seizure last year, Hong Kong customs nabbed 45 kilos of raw ketamine powder coming from the mainland. In Michigan and New Hampshire, police have arrested several small entrepreneurs for ordering K from Chinese chemical suppliers. (Gough 2002.)
Once ketamine was unleashed on Shenzhen, it spread quickly to the rest of the country.

A 2005 article on ketamine in a public security-focused magazine introduced the drug to its readership like this:
When the topic of drugs come up, most people immediately think of heroin, opium, ecstasy [yáotóuwán 摇头丸], and other illicit chemicals. But K powder [K-fěn K粉] must now be added to that list. It appears as a white, crystalline substance, also referred to by its chemical name of ketamine [lǜ’ǎntóng 氯铵酮]. It is meant for use as an anesthetic. The slang term K powder comes from the drug's English name, which starts with a "K." In 2003, it became a target of Ministry of Public Security enforcement. In karaoke establishments and dance halls, the slang term "high" is used to refer to all drugs, but nowadays, "high drug" [hāiyào 嗨药] invariably refers to ketamine… (费鸣东, 2005.)
The countless law enforcement-published or -focused publications out of China are just about the only way to track the movement of the drug through the country. One of the earliest references to the drug’s street use in China is in an article about Guangdong police dogs working drug interdiction (刘振喜 & 黄宇雄, 2002) (all earlier references to the drug are to its use as a date rape drug [qiángjiānyào 强奸药] [司徒谷雨, 2001], which, it turns out, was not incredibly common, with the DEA only able to point to one case of ketamine being used to facilitate a rape [Date Rape Drugs: Hearing before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Committee on Commerce, 1999, p. 65]).

A magazine produced for the General Administration of Customs refers to the arrival of a new drug, which they call “drug K” (K-dú K毒) (毛凌彦 & 钟朝珍, 2002). In 2003, two workers attached to a Public Security Bureau (PSB) compulsory drug rehabilitation lock-up in Wenzhou, Zhejiang published their account of dealing with abusers of ketamine, suggesting the drug made an early jump from the Pearl River Delta (PRD) to the Yangtze River Delta (YRD) around that time (冯金林 & 季锦云, 2003). And in 2005, there was talk in the same General Administration of Customs publication of the drug being distributed from Fuzhou in Fujian, with packages being sent out by mail to Japan and Taiwan (许强, & 陆军, 2005). The journal of Henan’s PSB tracks the drugs to the dance halls of Zhengzhou a year later (时秋娜, 2006). By 2009, there were notes in a legal newsletter about synthetic drugs in Lhasa (王锋, 2009).

According to a 2006 report on drug abuse trends in China, ketamine and other new synthetic drugs (NSD) had already claimed second place behind opiates as the top choice for recently state-registered drug addicts (Fang et al., 2006). In 2007, ketamine seizures quadrupled in China (and heroin seizures went down by almost a quarter) (Reuters, 2007).

(I’ve gone back and forth about including more on Taiwan, but I’ve decided I will dispose of it in a sudden lengthy parenthetical aside. There’s a wealth of academic writing and medical research on the use of ketamine in Taiwan [just scraping the surface, but see: Chang et al., 2019; Hsu, 2014, and its expanded Chinese-language version, 許良因, & 劉名峰, 2017; Lee et al., 2012; Li et al., 2011; 劉秀亞, 2008; and Lua et al., 2003, which analyzes urine samples from a "disco-dancing club" in Taipei, showing 47% of those that tested positive for drugs had ketamine or metabolites in their system, and that the drug was possibly being combined with amphetamines, given that 42% of positive samples included both; Chen et. al, 2009 for analysis of results of national drug surveys of Taiwanese adolescents between 2004 and 2006; and Huang et al., 2014, which predicts the peak of the methamphetamine "epidemic" having passed, and ketamine replacing it]. There’s probably a wealth of informal writing on ketamine in Taiwan, but I don’t have the energy for that project.)

A ketamine scare story

The bar was dim, but a young woman was visible on the dancefloor, twirling in a black dress, the cigarette in her hand almost burned down to her fingernails. She gave a high-pitched laugh. "She's got to be two packets deep already," Susu whispered to Youjia. "I can already tell this night is going to be fucked up." The young woman in the dress seemed to melt into the crowd on the dancefloor, writhing and twisting as if she had no idea where she was. A few moments later, though, she seemed to regain her energy, and started rushing through the crowd. As the revelers urged her on, she dropped one shoulder of her dress, exposing her arm. Suddenly, the crowd roared loud enough to drown out the music: "Take it off!"
Youjia could see the woman's face and the otherworldly grin plastered across it. She writhed as if possessed by a demon. She reached up and dropped the other shoulder, then pulled her dress down to her waist, exposing the upper half of her body. On the dancefloor, some people laughed, some people cheered. It was the high point of their drug-induced joy. About ten minutes later, a middle-aged man suddenly appeared in the crowd and dragged the woman in the black dress out of the club, and took her off to rape her in a room he had rented nearby... Youjia could not refuse. Susu made clear that she was going to initiate her friend into the world of drugs.
Youjia watched Susu go through the process of pouring a bit of bottled water into a glass fruit tray, shaking it around, then wiping it dry with a rag. She put a lighter under the plate next, and cooked off the last of the moisture. "You have to get it completely dry. This is all about hygiene." When the plate was ready, Dong Qiang took out a small wrap of paper and dumped out some white crystals that looked like MSG. Susu took out a discount card from a grocery store and used it to grind the crystals into a fine powder, which she divided into several lines. "You have to snort it in lines," Susu said. "That's how you do it. You have to make sure you snort the whole line, too." She stuck a straw into a nostril, bent to the table, plugged her other nostril, and started snorting up the powder. The powder disappeared into her nose. Susu leaned back with a strange look on her face. "You have to snort it all. That's how you get really high. You'll feel all your bones getting soft. Just walking around the room, you'll feel like you're floating. It's amazing." She passed the straw to Youjia. "This shit is amazing.”
Youjia hesitated, but then she told herself: This stuff can't be as bad as heroin, right? One sniff can't get me hooked on it, right?
Because she took so much and because it was her first time, the drugs had a powerful effect on her. She got up and danced, and she started to sweat. She felt like her body was no longer under her control. She started stripping off her clothes, writhing to the wild beat of the music. When she ran back into the private room, Dong Qiang was waiting for her. She was powerless to resist him. He carried her off to a room in the back of the club and laid her beautiful, alabaster body down on the bed. She was completely immobile. He couldn't help but stop for a moment to admire her fair skin, cherry lips, and her excellent figure. Youjia gave a moan, struggling to regain consciousness, interrupting Dong Qiang's reverie. "Who—who are you?" she mumbled. "What are you doing?" She struggled to take in what was going on around her, but it only made her even more confused. All she could tell was that a man she only half-recognized was nibbling on her breasts. "What do you think I'm doing?" Dong Qiang said. He laughed coldly. She saw blood on her own chest.
He put his hands around her shoulders, kissed her snow white neck, and bit her soft skin. Her moaning drove Dong Qiang wild with lust. He took her exquisite chin in her hands. She thought about biting him, but he grabbed her hard around the shoulders and squeezed. She had never been humiliated by that before. She struggled like a mouse in a trap. Dong Qiang laughed again. He penetrated her secret garden... When it was all over, Dong Qiang lit a cigarette and looked at the comatose Youjia.
Yes, he had his way with her. Of course he did. Not once, but many times. It just so happened to be the night of Youjia's 25th birthday. She was abused and humiliated, barely conscious. From that day forward, she was hopelessly addicted to K. Youjia and Dong Qiang were inseparable. She needed him.
Dong Qiang's bar had become known as a place to get high, even though he never touched drugs himself. When Youjia arrived to get high, Dong Qiang always had club security stationed outside the private room, acting as lookouts. In fact, most people that get high do so in places just like that. They find the music stimulating, of course, but the other reason is that bars and clubs provide a sense of security for them. (费鸣东, 2005, my own translation, and I've translated anything else where the reference is in Chinese, unless otherwise noted.)

A brief diversion: the life and times of the Ketamine Kid

Most ketamine consumed since its discovery by Parke, Davis & Co. in the 1950s has been diverted from legitimate sources (Copeland & Dillon, 2005). Law enforcement reported no evidence of clandestine ketamine production in the early 2000s (Lankenau, 2006). One reason is that pharmaceutical companies dumped tons of the stuff into markets with loose controls, and another is that ketamine is not easy to synthesize. That makes the exploits of the Ketamine Kid (K-fěn shàonián K粉少年) all the more impressive.

Ketamine Kid was the nickname given to Jia Qin 贾沁, who began experimenting with ketamine synthesis at the age of seventeen. He had always enjoyed chemistry, and after watching Scarface (1983), he figured he could make some money selling ketamine. He spent his first two years of college sourcing precursors and equipment, and researching online and in libraries. He recruited a friend—Jin Xin 金鑫, a classmate—as an assistant. It took him over a hundred times, but Jia Qin produced his first batch of ketamine in the summer of 2005. Jia Qin was dispatched to get on the internet and start selling the product.

He wasn’t producing much, but it was enough to get him in trouble. The police caught up with Jia Qin and Jin Xin in the fall of 2006.

When a journalist interviewed him after his sentencing, he seemed uninterested in answering questions: “What do I think about my behavior? What kind of question is that? I got my sentence. What can I do about it now?”

In another interview, he claimed Liu Zhaohua 刘招华 was his idol. Jia Qin would have seen the wanted posters with a massive price on the Fujianese methamphetamine manufacturer and distributor’s head. Someone finally claimed that bounty. When the police showed up to his warehouse, he was inspecting eleven tons of raw, uncut ice. He was sentenced to death shortly after Jia Qin completed his first batch of ketamine. Liu, it was said, was also fond of chemistry as a boy, ("Notorious drug kingpin executed for trafficking," 2009)

Compared to Liu, Jia Qin got off easy: four years in prison. (All of the details on Jia Qin and his operation are from two state media reports on the arrest and trial of Jia Qin and Jin Xin: “大专生找工作受阻自制毒品被判4年,” 2007; “凭化学天分制出毒品贩卖 ‘K粉少年’被判4年刑,” 2007.)

Jia Qin was not the last person to make ketamine in China. The easy sourcing of lab equipment and precursor chemicals, and know-how and infrastructure from methamphetamine manufacturing made it slightly easier than outside the country. In 2014, 2015, and 2016, China reported close to a hundred cases a year of illicit ketamine manufacture, but the vast majority were focused on methamphetamine, turning out only small quantities of ketamine (China National Narcotics Control Commission report, quoted in Precursors and Chemicals Frequently Used in the Illicit Manufacture of Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, 2018).

My own ketamine story (I)

Long before I took ketamine, I was a fan of dextromethorphan (I’m going to abbreviate it as DXM, but medical literature prefers DEX). DXM works in some of the same ways that ketamine does: it’s an N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonist (so are PCP and nitrous oxide) and high doses induce a dissociative state (Linn et al., 2014), and, if you take enough, you will hallucinate (Martinak et al., 2017, which also refers to DXM’s reputation as a “poor man’s PCP”). There is no restriction on sales of DXM, and it’s commonly found as an antitussive in cough syrups, an alternative to more problematic drugs like codeine, dihydrocodeine, and morphine (like those drugs, dextromethorphan is a sigma σ1 receptor agonist).

I spent many teenage nights chatting on IRC, chugging syrup, and listening to Coast to Coast AM. For most people that turned to DXM, it was a medicine cabinet substitute for psilocybin mushrooms or marijuana (but see Gelfer, 2007 for a discussion of neo-shamanism among the syrup chuggers, DXM as sacrament, and underground DXM culture). I tried those, and graduated to the tryptamines and phenethylamines being traded on the IRC channels (AMT, DPT, 2C-B, 2C-T-7, 5-MEO-DIPT...), but none hit me quite like DXM. I rarely took enough DXM for anything but a mild buzz, but when I did, it felt good and safe. There was none of the paranoia I experienced smoking weed, and it wasn’t as frightening as psilocybin mushrooms. Rather than a pure psychedelic blast, dissociatives float you softly into the world beyond. Too much of a substance like LSD or DPT, you can expect to experience violent psychospiritual disintegration, but too much DXM and the "dumb and numb" (Linn et al., 2014) effects kick in.

Sometime around my eighteenth birthday, after a disastrous experience with LSD, the anxiety and depression I had felt simmering at a controllable level for years boiled over, and I was forced to give up even DXM. That summer, I started taking a combination of paroxetine and clonazepam, with zopiclone for sleep. Apart from that pharmaceutical regimen, there were only occasional experiments with codeine, hydromorphone, and weaker benzodiazepines. A slow downward spiral ended with me flying off to China.

I’m hazy now on the first time I did a bump of ketamine, but I believe it was probably in the Nanjing bar district of 1912. It would have been the summer of 2006. I was sitting at a table outside, under a string of green lanterns advertising Carlsberg. The bump came from a friend of a friend, who had earlier in the night pulled out a joint of marijuana. I assumed I was snorting methamphetamine or cocaine, but I realized that the warm and spacey effects had to be from a dissociative, and ketamine was the only one that made sense.

The second time I took ketamine, I was more prepared. I was in a club in a third-tier city in Northern Jiangsu. I was sitting at a corner booth with two men who I had met that night over Red Label and iced tea. The club had an Uzbek dancer who went up on the bar every few hours, and, when she took off her bikini bottoms, the bartender doused the Formica with baijiu and lit it, so that her feet were obscured by a wall of wobbling blue flame. Nearly every table in the club was covered in powder. The two men went to work with bank cards on separate piles of jagged crystals, producing a half dozen thick lines. I remember feeling my head float up, hovering above my body and the dancefloor like a balloon. Time slowed down. There was a rush of euphoria.

Ketamine was available everywhere I went. At clubs, people kept it in the ashtray, covered with a napkin. When I went to a KTV, it didn’t seem strange to have a waiter offer to get us some. At the internet cafe, I knew one of the kids at the counter could deliver it, along with instant noodles and Pepsi.

I started to seek out the drug. I had no idea at the time that ketamine had been found to have powerful antidepressant effects (Grady et al., 2017), but it seemed to have lifted me out of the haze of anxiety that I had been under for the previous two years.

I initiated friends into the experience. I rarely took excessive dosages, but some of my friends indulged too heavily, and I eventually stopped the practice of offering drugs. I bought ketamine from a friend that seemed to go out every night. At first, I would meet him at the club, where his booth was always littered with popped blister packs and other paraphernalia, and then I would catch him at home mid-morning, before he went to bed. His father would let me in, make small talk, then gesture up the stairs.

I usually took ketamine alone. Sometimes I took it at an internet cafe near my home, where I sat nestled in the big comfy chair, listening to music on headphones, and openly did lines; sometimes I did it at home, in the dark like Lilly in his isolation tank, immobile on my bed. It’s comparatively easy to describe the visual and auditory hallucinations that accompany a drug experience but harder to describe the way that your thoughts move differently. On ketamine, my thoughts felt smooth, like pebbles on the bottom of a river, or two pieces of hard candy in a cheek. I would sometimes snort ketamine until I was incapacitated.

There’s something to ketamine being addictive, but I never developed a habit. I could go weeks without taking it, but I could never say no when it was offered. I broke up with my then-girlfriend after vowing not to snort, then going with her to a bar a few nights later, being offered a tin plate with lines and a straw on it, and killing a rail, while she sat on my lap, fuming.

Like liquor and cigarettes, it was a way to meet people. There was the dealer, but then all the other people you could meet on a night out that would offer a straw. I met two People’s Liberation Army tank crewmen, who were on a night out in Jinan, and snorted lines with them; after I smoothed over a dispute between a friend and two local toughs that had seen him dancing with a young woman in their crew, peace was sealed with a Carlsberg ashtray paved with ketamine; I met a gangster that told me about his time in prison and how he’d earned the smudged tattoo between his eyebrows. Hunting for the drug in new places was guaranteed to be interesting.

The last time I took ketamine in China was outside Castle Bar in Nanjing. It was over a decade ago. I had already given up on my experiments with the drug. That last time, I took it just to be social. When I moved away, the first time, and then went back, I realized that ketamine had mostly disappeared.

It made occasional appearances, I saw it around—snorted by two sculptors during a screening of Beetlejuice (1988) at an art space in Guangzhou, offered for sale by a drug dealer whose apartment me and some friends crashed at after hanging out at Catwalk in Guangzhou, laid out on a table at a Burger King in Shenzhen, being snorted by some patrons at a bar in Shaoguan, and being flaunted by some girls at a bar in Datong—but the glory days were done.

How much ketamine was there and where did it all go?

If you weren’t in China between, say, 2000 and 2010, you probably have no idea what the hell I’m talking about—tables covered in powder, open snorting of lines, girls posting pictures of themselves online taking blasts of ketamine, and low-level moral panic—and, if you’re mixing with people under 35 or so, they’re more likely to be taking methamphetamine, miscellaneous synthetic stimulants, or smoking hash.

And a reality check here: despite all the talk of a decade of dissociation and widespread ketamine use, if you compare use in China to use of drugs almost anywhere else, the numbers are very low. Use of ketamine—or any drug!—in China can’t touch numbers in most Western countries. Look at Wong et al., 2010 for research into the illicit drug habits of a medium-sized sample of migrant men in Shanghai, including those that worked in the sex trade, which concluded that “resurgence [of illicit drug use] after 30 years of drug control gives cause for concern,” despite the fact that only 9% reported lifetime use of any drugs at all. Compare that with a survey of Yunnan residents 15-64 years old, in a province awash in drugs, right beside the Golden Triangle, which found the prevalence rate of methamphetamine use at 0.48% in 2015 (most users were "male, low educated, and peasants," and nearly half were ethnic minorities) (Zhang et al., 2018). Okay, and then compare that to a figure from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health that 2.0% of Americans used cocaine in 2018 alone, and 5.6% were past year users of hallucinogens (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2019), and the fact that percentage of Canadians who used select illicit drugs in their lifetime as of 2017 was around 47.9%, and lifetime prevalence of illicit drug use around 40% for Russians under 45.

So, how many people took ketamine between 2000 and 2010? Well, we don’t know. There’s wastewater-based epidemiology now (and we’ll get into those numbers below, which involves looking through sewage for drugs and their metabolites), but there isn’t much data from before 2012. There are seizures of drugs and precursors, but those can be misleading, because we have no idea what percentage of diverted legitimate ketamine and clandestinely-produced ketamine was actually seized, and how much of what was seized and what wasn’t seized was intended for overseas markets. Returning to anecdotal evidence: let’s say I took most of my ketamine in a city of about three million people, and most of that ketamine use was mostly restricted to about ten or eleven venues, if I guesstimate a figure of even 2000 people regularly blasting off, it’s still not even approaching 0.001%. If you look at big cities in the YRD and PRD, the numbers are probably closer to Taipei, Taiwan and Hong Kong, but even there, the numbers are fairly low, it seems (relative to the United States, say) (Central Registry of Drug Abuse, 2009; Lua et al, 2003). A friend in Shenzhen, who worked at a bowling alley-cum-KTV between 2004 and 2006, and spent much of those years wasting his time in clubs and other nightlife venues, says that ketamine, like ecstasy, was mostly a dilettante's drug, popular with casual users, while methamphetamine had a larger committed user base. (It might also be worth noting that all the references to ketamine use in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mainland China deal exclusively with people snorting it, while users in the West were slightly more likely to experiment with intramuscular ketamine [Lankenau & Clatts, 2002 profiles a “small sample of young ketamine injectors (n=25) in New York City”], and I know someone that claimed to have produced a crack cocaine-like smokable freebase of ketamine, although looking back, I’m not sure how reliable that claim was.)

But anecdotally again, there are no more clubs in China with tables covered in powder, and since 2012, I’ve been offered methamphetamine, hashish, and benzodiazepines, but I’ve only seen ketamine a handful of times.

Police and drug enforcement authorities were aware of what was happening with ketamine spreading. The fact that it was a casual’s drug probably worried some people in charge, since it couldn’t be confined to sex workers and nightlife venue workers and truck drivers and factory workers, like methamphetamine mostly was. Efforts to smash production facilities and distribution networks were ramped up (Tiezzi, 2014). Since most ketamine was diverted from legitimate use, it was easier to put a kink in the hose. The clandestine labs fell next. A hundred a year! When a massive operation in Boshe in Guangdong was shut down, it might have been the death knell (马世鹏, 2016). (The bust of Boshe had an effect not unlike the 2000 Pickard and Apperson LSD bust, which possibly contributed to an entire generation being deprived of the drug, although Pickard disputes that claim, suggesting it was more an issue of MDMA displacing LSD [Pickard, n.d.].)

At the same time, Indian authorities clamped down on their own leaky ketamine mills, and got serious about the drug, adding it to Schedule X in the Drugs and Cosmetics Act (Debroy, 2013). The drought was global, affecting clubbers as far away as London and Berlin (Lankenau & Sanders, 2007, has a discussion of previous intermittent droughts; and see also: Power, 2013, 2014; Siddique, 2013).

The process of sourcing and synthesizing ketamine precursors, and then producing the drug itself proved too difficult for all but the most advanced clandestine laboratories to take on (“Further information provided by the People’s Republic of China on the proposed scheduling of ketamine,” 2015), but there was a market in producing alternative dissociatives, like β-keto-arylcyclohexylamines, which were analogs of ketamine, like methoxetamine (MXE), deschloroketamine, 2-fluoro-2-deschloroketamine, and 1,2-diarylethylamines, like ephenidine and diphenidine, and PCP analogues, like 3-MeO-PCP, 4-MeO-PCP (Corazza et al., 2013; Morris & Wallach, 2014; Wallach & Brandt, 2018; Wallach et al., 2016). (Of those, only MXE had much success as a recreational drug. It filled the ketamine-shaped hole left in the heart of dissociative aficionados [see especially Cortazza et al., 2013]. It’s hard to say how popular it was, exactly, but popular enough that it was sold at Glastonbury in 2011, and occasioned a mild panic in the UK, where it was legal [McPherson, 2012]).

When ketamine (racemic ketamine, esketamine [S-ketamine], the s-isomer of ketamine [racemic ketamine consists of two enantiomers, R- and S-ketamine, and “S-ketamine is reported to be less prone to psychomimetic side effects” (Paul et al., 2009)], along with the various ketamine analogs for sale on darknet markets) eventually returned to Europe and North America around 2016, it was unclear how much was coming from China, and how much was coming from sources in India or elsewhere (Daly, 2016). Big busts of Indian ketamine suggest that the Subcontinent was the source (Buddi, 2019 tells the harrowing tale of the “pharma company honcho” in charge of Inchem Laboratories of Hyderabad, who was busted with close to 500 kilos of ketamine manufactured without the proper license; King, M. 2019 covers the bust of a Myanmar-flagged freighter, weighted down with over a ton of ketamine bound for Southeast Asia).

Ketamine remains somewhat widely available outside China, and I’ve seen prices get as low as $20-25 USD a gram on darknet markets (markup, buying from a dealer, is double or triple that, usually). It’s such a problem that Sky News ran a report early in 2020 warning parents about TikTok zoomers doing bumps in their videos (Martin, 2020).

But it never really came back in China, at least to its former prominence. I’ve given my own anecdotal testimony as to the lack of ketamine, but, shoring that up, there is WBE data, and records of seizures.

A 2014 study of the wastewater of Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Shanghai found “omnipresent” methamphetamine use but ketamine mostly prevalent in Guangzhou and Shenzhen (Khan et al., 2014). Researchers monitoring sewage treatment plants in eighteen major cities found that methamphetamine use had "increased substantially since 2012," but ketamine use likely decreased (Du et al., 2015). A team from Renmin University in Beijing, checking for traces of ketamine and metabolites in the wastewater of several cities, found a 67% decrease in ketamine usage in 2015 alone (Cyranoski, 2018).

In 2018, the China National Narcotics Control Commission reported a steep decline in busts of “production dens,” while identifying the Golden Triangle as the major source (or perhaps transit point) of ketamine (“Narcotics production in China drastically abates in 2018: report,” 2019).

Now, was it all coming in from the Golden Triangle? No, of course not. Maybe some was coming from India, given all the major busts of shipments coming from there to Hong Kong. It was more complicated than that. Look at a recent case where ketamine was going from Europe to Hong Kong, with about 20 kilos recently found coming in the mail from Germany and the Netherlands (Lo, 2019). Look at a 2012 case involving Hunan and Guangdong PSB, which smashed a drug lab operating in Chenzhou, Hunan, discovered 1.12 tons of methamphetamine, unspecified other drugs, precursor chemicals, three Hong Kong drug traffickers, and a Mexican national, who was either acting as a consultant or purchasing precursors (this is “湘粤’2012-337’制贩毒案,” which is listed in a collection of notable drug cases in 齐霁, 2017). While China was outsourcing manufacturing to Southeast Asia and beyond, and the West was still outsourcing some manufacturing to China, it seems that a similar pattern was taking place in synthetic drug manufacturing (Zhao, 2016).

The seizures might be misleading, and WBE can’t tell us that much, but, adding the anecdotal evidence in, it seems clear that ketamine use is not what it once was. Maybe aggressive seizures helped, maybe all the K heads grew up (I get into that below), and maybe some of it is because of an anti-drug publicity campaign, and also changes in the legal status of ketamine and precursors (Huang, 2016). WBE and seizures suggest that methamphetamine has almost completely eclipsed ketamine as a casual hangout drug. (This echoes the idea Pickard puts forward that MDMA replaced LSD, rather than interdiction and enforcement efforts against LSD, being what caused an acid drought.)

Very briefly, the history of methamphetamine in China

Methamphetamine was a Japanese innovation, synthesized by either Nagai Nagayoshi 長井長義 or Ogata Akira 緒方章 (the history of amphetamines in general, and methamphetamine in particular is very complicated, because both names were used to refer to several compounds, and it’s hard to sort out who did what and when, but see Paulson, 2005 for a long but basic introduction). It was used to fuel the war effort, handed out to soldiers and pilots, and sold over-the-counter to citizens back home and in far flung outposts of the empire. When the war ended, a massive supply of the drug hit the black market, the drug was still available without a prescription, and there was an epidemic of methamphetamine abuse and addiction (Brill & Hirose, 1980; Edström, 2015; Suwaki et al., 1997). After legal measures were taken to control the drug, the methamphetamine pandemic was reduced to a constant low-level fever (Brill & Hirose, 1980). As the drug was no longer available from legitimate sources, organized crime used their links in South Korea to set up clandestine laboratories in the country.
The origins of methamphetamine production in China can be traced back to Japan. By the 1980s, Japanese methamphetamine producers were known to be operating in South Korea. They were forced to close down, however, because of the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul and the accompanying crackdowns on crime in the country. Producers then opted to transfer their operations to Taiwan before that country, in turn, decided in October 1990 to put methamphetamine production and consumption on top of the list of social problems to be eradicated.
The Japanese producers therefore moved their activities once again, this time to the Chinese province of Fujian. The province rapidly became a major drug production and consumption centre. Indeed, in 1994, 7,357 kg of methamphetamine freshly unloaded from Fujian were intercepted in Taiwan; additionally, 2,600 kg of the drug were seized in Fujian Province in 1995. (Chouvy & Meissonnier, 2004, p. 35.)
Well, but, this narrative erases or removes the agency of enterprising Chinese drug producers! How sad! By 1994, the Chinese methamphetamine was highly developed.

Li Zhiming 黎志明 and a Hong Kong triad member named Li Qiuping 李秋萍 had established a methamphetamine lab in Jiangmen, Guangdong as early as 1989, running a shampoo factory as cover. Within a couple years, he had his associates set up an operation outside Dongguan, they invested their profits into opening up another clandestine lab in Qingyuan, and a member of their organization was running his own lab in Fujian by 1991 (苏智良, 1997). Everything was fine until the Guangdong PSB went to check out Li Zhiming’s operation after they came across a huge load of ephedrine bound for his shampoo factory (ephedrine is a decongestant and mild stimulant, not used for hair care products). After that, the dominoes fell, one by one. The investigation eventually included agents from INTERPOL and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (they had nabbed a Chinese man— Xiao Haohua 肖浩华—traveling on an Argentine passport, who was the Americas connection for the group). (刘兵, 1997 is a piece of reportage that fleshes out this story, but check 苏智良, 1997 for the nitty gritty and a history of Taiwanese organized crime and drugs, and 齐霁, 2017 for other early methamphetamine trafficking and manufacturing cases, and 王金香, 2005 for a general overview of Chinese methamphetamine production.)

The movement of clandestine labs to Fujian was connected to law enforcement efforts in Taiwan, but it was also cheaper to outsource (Zhou, 1999, and Zhou, 2000). The final destination for much of the product was Japan (Suwaki et al., 1997 quotes a 1993 Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare report that says most of the methamphetamine seized that year was from Taiwan and the PRC), It wasn’t really “Japanese producers”moving into Taiwan and the Mainland, but locals finding cheaper manufacturing solutions. By the 1990s, Taiwanese black society (hēishèhuì 黑社会) was strong, sophisticated, and had connections in Mainland China, as well as links to overseas markets, like Japan, South Korea, and the United States (苏智良, 1997).

The operations in Fujian and Guangdong were sending most of their loads to southern ports, sending them out of the country, or to Taiwan and Hong Kong (苏智良, 1997). They eventually outsourced some of their own operations to Myanmar, where the lawless border region was already colonized by traffickers and drug chemists (International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, 1999).

The border regions is where methamphetamine took root in the PRC: most likely in Yunnan, right across a porous border with Myanmar (Li et al., 2018; Li et al., 2010; Li et al., 2008), home to most of China’s drug addicts, and then perhaps in the PRD, where the first entrepreneurs set up labs, and then maybe in Liaoning in the Northeast, which, starting in the 1990s, was used as a transshipment point for methamphetamine made in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (Hwang, 2003), and quickly became a hotbed of trafficking and manufacturing in its own right (曹凤, 1997).

Getting an idea for how many people were using methamphetamine in the 1990s is more difficult than just looking at seizure numbers, since much was headed overseas. But it seemed to be quickly changing the face of the illicit drug market in the country. Between 1991 and 2000, 5 tons of heroin had been seized in China. But methamphetamine easily broke that record, with 37.6 tons seized between 1998 and 2000 (those figures are from Gao, H., but they match Chinese government figures, so I’ll assume that’s where she got them). And that would the explosion of methamphetamine across Asia in the 1990s and 2000s (Dargan & Wood, 2012; Mcketin, 2008).

Methamphetamine was always going to win. Ketamine was an aberration.

My own methamphetamine story

I went into ketamine without knowing what I was taking, and I didn't have any negative associations or whatever, even if I had known what I was taking. I wouldn't knowingly take methamphetamine. Being white trash from the North American hinterland, there was plenty of opportunity, and then, in China, still more opportunity.

I had a good friend, who I ended up spending time in a detention facility in Shanxi with. Gay men in China, in my experience, are more likely than anyone else to be up for hitting a pipe. (This is backed up by Wong et al., 2010, and by Xu et al., 2014, a study of 625 men who have sex with men [MSM] in Shenyang, which found that 4% had used methamphetamine, while ketamine only had 0.8% prevalence [poppers topped the list at 19.2%]. Unfortunately, according to Plankey et al., 2007, methamphetamine usage was found to increase the relative hazard for HIV seroconversion, and lead MSM to make other risky choices [Zhu et al., 2018].)

My friend was barely out of his teens when he ended up in China, and he'd been experimenting with methamphetamine before we ended up in the detention facility (that was just a mixup, nothing serious), but after getting out and flying down to Hong Kong, he crossed back over into Guangzhou. He was there a few weeks before he started hitting me up for cash. He was addicted to methamphetamine. He ended up being found in an apartment that his brother's friend—a devout Pakistani man—was renting to him, surrounded by drug paraphernalia, ranting, deep in some kind of psychosis. I've heard conflicting reports on whether or not he's still alive.

Stick to ketamine.

Records of the ketamine decade

Most evidence of the decade of dissociation was ephemeral—passworded albums on QZone, with ketamine arranged in the shape of a heart, low-res selfies by fēizhǔliú 非主流 kids doing bumps in KTV rooms, Weibo blogs about how to maximize the ketamine high… I can think of a few passing literary references to the drug, but those aren’t much beyond a namecheck.

Mostly, there are anti-drug narratives, which all come off as untrustworthy (see “从抽大麻到吸冰毒,我用亲身经历告诉你,毒品是如何让人一步一步升级上瘾,” 2017, for one, and here’s another one):
Who gave you ketamine [K-fěn K粉]? Did you go buy it yourself?
Zhang Yang: No, a friend gave it to me. I just wanted to fool around, get some friends together, play around, have some fun, get a little crazy. How crazy?
Zhang Yang: My little group was never that crazy, actually. I mean, we did cross the line sometimes. We'd get together, all the girls, the boys, women, and we'd do this thing we called 'naked high,' which was, like, when we'd all get naked. Completely naked, in the room, high.
What did you think when you first encountered ketamine?
Zhang Yang: I figured it was like ecstasy [yáotóuwán 摇头丸], and I just wanted to have a good time, and I didn't think it was even addictive. As far as I was concerned, all that stuff—ketamine, meth [bīngdú 冰毒]—wasn't something you could get hooked on. I knew heroin was addictive, but I was sure all that stuff was safe. That turned out to be a lie. Ketamine looks a lot like heroin. Weren't you nervous [about what you were taking]?
Zhang Yang: A bit, but only for a second. I asked my friend what it was. I asked if it was heroin [fěn 粉]. My friend was like, 'You think I'd waste heroin on you? That stuff is expensive.' He was just joking, I guess. He said, 'It's just ketamine.' I asked him if it was addictive and he said it wasn't. ("23岁少女讲述5年吸毒史:曾经历集体裸high," 2005.)
Another casual user (he took it three times) posted a blog about taking ketamine :
It happened over a year ago, but I still can't get over it! Writing down my experiences and feelings is actually an attempt at giving myself some closure! That is all I can hope for. I want to explain the curiosity that led me to try the drug and the slow realization I came to after the experience. Perhaps my experiences can serve as a warning to friends. I want you to know, K is not a good thing. It's not something that normal people [zhèngchángrén 正常人] should pursue, the happiness and relaxation that the drug falsely promises… It's not a good thing when pleasure and happiness are out of your control. (tltyyp, 2008.)
A KTV girl shares her experience, which is about as objective as it gets (heroin was her major problem, while ketamine, methamphetamine, and ecstasy were occasional treats):
After snorting ketamine, I sometimes started to hallucinate. I would have visions of hell. It wasn't a calming experience. Taking K [dǎ K 打K], the effects would start after fifteen minutes to half an hour. The hallucinations could last three to four hours. ("KTV坐台小姐吸毒经历过程," 2012.)
David O'Dell shares his memories of blowing cash at Club Vogue in Beijing in the early 2000s, and even in this account by a foreigner, the tone is decidedly not very celebratory:
We would show up at Vogue and Henry would set up an entire table for us in the VIP section. We would order drinks by the bottle inviting all of our friends to share. Any given weekend we would be alongside movie stars, directors, singers, and musicians completely blitzed out of their minds on ecstasy or special-K. ... The VIP bathroom was segregated male and female, but around midnight when the drug buffet was floating around, the polished chrome bathrooms turned into sex retreats. The choice of drugs led to a lot of restless nights babysitting close friends as they fell into what we called the "K-hole," where symptoms included shaking, shivering, blacking out and vomiting. (O'Dell, 2014, p. 162.)
When I asked an old friend about her experiences with ketamine, she first denied having ever used it. I reminded her of a few specific times and places that we had used it together. She said, “Honestly, I don’t even remember.” Another friend that I contacted about the ketamine days told me that he wasn’t even sure what it was, and assumed it was a compound related to heroin. I have to assume ketamine was more important to me than to anybody I took it with.

The body keeps a record, though. Maybe that is all we will have. Ketamine-induced uropathy (Li et al., 2019; Ma & Chu, 2015), brain lesions (Wang, 2013) last a lifetime. (But yes, casual users probably got off without lasting physical or neurological damage.)

(Taiwan appearing parenthetically again, speaking of ketamine-induced uropathy: there is a repost from the Dcard social networking site about a man who has to contend with his girlfriend’s diaper when he fucks her. The original poster wrote that when he first met his girlfriend, she concealed the diaper with loose garments. Due to the woman's condition, when the couple made love, foreplay usually took place in the shower, and the act itself as was concluded as quickly as possible ["拉K女友包尿布 他透露自己做愛變這樣," 2017].)

Looking back

Looking for some clear comparison for the ketamine decade in China (and trying to come up with some conclusion to make all of this writing worth it, and to answer the questions: Why? What did it mean?). Could we look back to opium, separating it temporarily from the legitimate nationalistic narrative of the dúhuà zhèngcè 毒化政策, with drugs being forced on the people? It was another drug that went from medicine to luxury to working class escape (Newman, 1995; Zheng, 2003). Maybe heroin and morphine in the early 20th century is the right comparison? Semi-synthetic, easy to transport, and, again, working man's drug (Dikötter et al., 2004, p. 176). Maybe not. I think of the postwar methamphetamine epidemic in Japan of the 1950s (Brill & Hirose, 1980 gives an estimated two million users and just over half a million addicts, mid-1950s), the PCP fad of the 1980s in the United States, or maybe mid-1990s and 2010s methcathinone booms (Ashrafioun et al., 2016; Calkins et al., 1995)—but these are unsatisfying: the methamphetamine epidemic in Japan emerges in a country already flooded with the drug and in a time of poverty and relative desperation, the PCP fad of the 1980s was concentrated mostly in a few cities, and the methcathinone booms were mostly about replacing other drugs. Ketamine entered China during a period of prosperity and stability, spread across the entire country, and didn’t replace already popular drugs of abuse but created its own new category. And so, maybe we can start there, coming up with the most facile explanations for ketamine’s temporary dominance…

The most obvious explanation is the sudden mobility of the Chinese working class, most of whom were young. Rapid export growth in the late 1990s and early 2000s brought millions of workers in their 20s and 30s (most born in the 1970s, before the beginning of stricter family planning rules) to coastal cities to work in the manufacturing and service sectors, mostly in PRD and YRD regions (Solinger, 1999; Wang, 2005). The floating population (liúdòng rénkǒu 流动人口) went from tens of millions in the 1980s, following the first tentative steps into Reform and Opening, to 225 million by the start of 2008, forming innumerable new social networks free of clan, family, village, and town (Law, 2012).

In Hong Kong, ketamine was a decidedly working class experience, associated with KTVs and “middle- and low-end discos” (Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 2008), and that was usually true on the Mainland, too (however, I should point out, it definitely filtered up to people that definitely weren’t migrant workers, and there’s a reference to it as an exotic gift in Hunwick, 2013, and some talk of it in Osburg, 2013, but… well, speaking anecdotally, it may have been something appealing to artists and celebrity Bohemians [see O’Dell, 2014], but it’s a working class drug). As workers bounced between the PRD (where ketamine was first introduced to the Mainland), the YRD, and home, the drug likely spread with them. The lifestyle of a worker in a garment or electronics factory makes a drug like ketamine appealing (see Lau et al., 2012 for more on the occupational hazards of assembly line work in China and the structural and socio-ecological roots of poor mental health among workers). Ketamine was free of the gender and socioeconomic codes of boozing (Cochrane et al., 2003 for gender; Wu et al., 2008 for socioeconomics of drinking). Going out to a club in China invariably involves some type of bottle service setup, and even going to a KTV requires decorating the table with drinks and fruit plates, but ketamine is cheaper than boozing (let’s say 50-150 RMB [$6-18 USD by 2006 exchange rates, which are not that different from present] for a gram ["经济半小时:'看清K粉的面目'," 2004 has an interview with a dealer, who claims to sell half grams for 100 RMB, which was about $12 USD in 2004].) It was also not as aggressively masculine as liquor, which was perhaps important to its early spread among the women and girls of the PRD and YRD, where preferences in hiring led to a more female labor force than in home provinces (Li & Liang, 2016). (Was ketamine use free of dickwaving and masculinity? No, of course not. But I would say there was less of that.)

Ketamine at low doses has a stimulant effect (Li & Vlisides, 2016; Wolff & Winstock, 2006). Getting drunk then hitting a few bumps, there seems to be a positive synergistic effect (obviously, please do not combine heavy drinking and heavy ketamine use). But the feeling of flying or floating is the effect that Chinese users seem to seek from ketamine (为什么K粉会给吸毒者“飞一般的感觉”?, 2017), lifting their heads free from bodies tortured by repetitive work, letting them dance and sing and fuck around without feeling every ache and pain, and giving them a taste of the lightness of the next life. Rural to urban migrants in China drank harder and fucked more before marriage than any other group in the country (Lin et al., 2005). Given the high rates of synthetic drug use in southern cities home to most of those migrants (talking about WBE analysis, but also the references in Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 2008 to Shenzhen, and also my own experience), it seems all right to conclude they were also snorting more ketamine than anyone else.

Can the disappearance of ketamine be chalked up solely to a clampdown on production, and possibly education and enforcement campaigns? Maybe. If the hundreds of millions of migrant workers floating around the country helped spread ketamine, maybe we should keep going with that theory.

A migrant worker is at present far more likely to work close to home:
The number of short-distance migrants has increased at a much faster rate than long-distance migrants over the last decade; a 30 percent increase since 2010 compared with 12 percent for long-distance migrants. ... About 74 percent of all migrant workers are now employed in their own province. Only 26 percent travelled outside their own province for work, mainly to major cities and manufacturing centres in the coastal areas. About 40 percent of migrant workers are employed in their home area, while the remaining 34 percent found work outside their home area but within their own province, usually provincial capitals or prefectural cities etc. (China Labor Bulletin, 2019.)
They are also older. The average age of a migrant worker was in their early 30s in 2008, but they are now over 40 (those that go all the way to the coast are usually younger) (China Labor Bulletin, 2019). With an older, less mobile population of migrant workers, who are more likely to be close to home, living with family, maybe it makes sense that ketamine is no longer king.

Methamphetamine use might also explain ketamine losing its shine. Maybe the crackdown on ketamine was crucial, but maybe it was simply replacement (see above, with the comparison between the Pickard raid and Boshe). Use of methamphetamine is down, but it’s still dominating the illicit drug market (Shao et al., 2020; Wang et al., 2019). It’s cheaper than ketamine, easier to market, easier to find, and easier to take, especially now that it frequently comes as pressed pills (mágǔ 麻古, mágǔ 麻谷, or gǔzi 谷子) (王姝玉 & 吕昊, 2011; 我们的吸毒经历..., 2010).

And having written all this, I think it’s important to add that ketamine—along with not being incredibly popular outside of a few social milieus, which we’ve already covered—was not a particularly special thing… Like I said, not very many people took it, and very few of those that took it had any idea what it was. The average kid going to a dance hall or KTV and buying ketamine in 2006 might have known that there were other drugs called “ice” (bīngdú 冰毒, methamphetamine), “white powder” (báifěn 白粉, heroin), and “head-shaking pill” (yáotóuwán 摇头丸, ecstasy and/or other stimulants in pressed pills), but that’s about it. Ketamine was easily replaced because it was just another nondescript “high drug” (high-yào high药).

Golden Age/Lost Decade

Zooming out from individual users, it’s worth looking at what was going on in the country at the time. The second half of the Jiang Zemin years (he was General Secretary between 1989 and 2002, so let's say 1995 to 2002) and the Hu Jintao/Wen Jiabao years (2002 to 2012) are sometimes described as a “golden age,” or, on the flipside, as a “lost decade” (Howell & Duckett, 2018 examines dueling narratives of golden age versus lost decade; Kirchner & Bone, 2013 is on the side of “lost decade”; there are other sources, but let me pick at random: 西村豪太, 2012 refers to 1992 to 2012 as “ten years of brilliance, the golden age of China,” “光輝く10年、中国の黄金時代”). There was a high rate of economic growth, the impression of centralized technocratic control, relative—to the previous five decades—stability, and major accomplishments like WTO accession, shooting astronauts into space, hosting the Olympics, and successful navigation through the 2008 economic crisis (Lam, 2006; Orlik, 2012). The Hu-Wen regime built China into a legitimate global superpower, delivered economic growth, and presided over a fairly open and liberal time, at least if you go by what the elites and expatriates said. The idea of the period as a “lost decade” comes from the fact that, despite delivering on wealth and power for the nation’s elite, it was a time of growing corruption, cities that were becoming polluted and expensive, and despite introducing some social policy reforms (Howel & Duckett, 2018), the growing gap between rich and poor was never adequately addressed (Sicular, 2013).

The golden age/lost decade is what helped ketamine to grow—all those club tables full of ketamine, despite the nightly walk through by the local PSB, and the existence of ketamine villages, where tons of the drug could be produced, that can only exist with massive corruption (Gong, 2002 and Shieh, 2006 on “collective corruption” in China; Jeffreys, 2010 on a particularly interesting case of official corruption; Lee, 2018 on minor police corruption). I’m skeptical of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive (Quade, 2007 analyzes previous corruption drives in China, concluding that they often come in time of macroeconomic austerity; and see Wedeman, 2017 for a lengthy and convincing look at the targets of the Xi anti-corruption drive, which often included factional rivals), but the corruption rife during the period, combined with a growing wage gap in rural China, helps explain the space carved out to let a new synthetic drug run semi-wild.

And we can zoom back in, down to Boshe in Guangdong, mentioned in passing before, where tons of methamphetamine and ketamine were being cranked out (Hignett, 2019; 马世鹏, 2016). It’s illustrative, I think, since it involves corruption, rural poverty, and—the fruits of a liberal golden age—rural elections, where the power of the state is replaced by individual money making interests. The village, where close to a third of citizens were involved in the drug trade, was run by Cai Dongjia 蔡东家, who revived old clan allegiances to run a methamphetamine and then ketamine manufacturing business, and used those allegiances, and the money earned through the drug trade, to win local elections (Tao, 2019).

Things are different now.

A brief diversion: drugs and the modern Chinese novel

This is the least rewarding section. I'm warning you. But the question is, what does it mean that ketamine, except for anti-drug narratives? I'm mostly interested in literature, where there are only a handful of passing references to ketamine (and we're talking here only about literary fiction, since it pops up in a few web novels and erotic fiction, etc.). It think it's the wrong question because it's actually a fairly esoteric thing to reference. And what does it mean that drugs in general rarely figure in the modern Chinese novel, except in anti-drug narratives? There are exceptions. Coco's boyfriend Tiantian in Wei Hui's 卫慧 Shanghai Baby 上海宝贝 (1999) is a drug addict. City Tank 城市战车 (1997) by Qiu Huadong 邱华栋 has Zhu Wen 朱文, a painter from Wuhan, who leaves behind his girlfriend for a new life in Beijing, smoking marijuana occasionally. And in Candy 糖 by Mian Mian 棉棉, she deals with heroin addiction:
Saining had often said he used heroin to help him find a "hallucinatory tranquility." I didn't know what other amazing sensations he got from it, but there was nothing beautiful about my life with heroin. Heroin was a petty thief, stealing everything there was to steal until I found myself with an absolute lack, a lack I had never before experienced. This emptiness gave me a sense of balance. The only meaning in my life was that my life was meaningless. I had never been free before, but until now I hadn't genuinely understood myself, my life, my body, my loves. Heroin and its frigid world had become the only freedom I could have. (Mian Mian, 2003. Translated by Andrea Lingenfelter [and what a fine translation it is! I'm not sure I ever actually read the book all the way through, maybe based on its reputation, but Lingenfelter's translation really makes it].)
I think the answers to the question are easy enough, though: nobody wants to put their business out there and end up like Wang Shuo 王朔 (he was criticized after talking openly about his own drug use, “公安部门称王朔自曝吸毒嫖娼应承担法律后果,” 2007), and drugs are a sensitive topic in China. Mention drugs to someone that doesn’t hang out in sleazy KTVs and they'll ask if you’re talking about yāpiàn 鸦片, opium, which is one of the few drugs you would struggle to find in modern China, unless you were—but it connects back to the struggle against foreign imperialism, symbolized by the forced addiction of Chinese to opium by the cruel British. The sick man of Asia (dōngyà bìngfū 东亚病夫) always has the stem of an opium pipe hovering within reach of his thin lips.
In the nationalistic narrative of drugs, foreignness was often discursively stressed. From discovering drugs' foreign origins to the National Anti Opium Association's acts that often resorted to Chineseness in the Republican era, further to the Communists' strategy of propaganda that always puts drugs in conjunction with Western imperialism and liberalism, anti-drug crusades were never short of foreign targets... (Gong, 2016, p. 129.)
In postsocialist China, though, especially through the 1990s and 2000s, “ideological ambiguity and complexity” (Gong, 2016, p. 127) led to anti-drug campaigns de-emphasizing the nationalistic message (since globalization and liberalization were crucial to building the country), and emphasizing a moralistic message.

In the essay I'm quoting there, Gong Haomin looks at Red Prescription 红处方 by Bi Shumin 毕淑敏 (1997), a novel about a retired nurse going undercover at a drug rehabilitation facility, telling the stories of the patients, which he argues is an attempt at “de-metaphorizing drug addiction” (Gong, 2016, p. 145). But, with all the “ideological ambiguity and complexity,” drugs have not quite been de-metaphorized, but the nationalistic narrative has been adapted so that drugs become still symbols of Westernization and liberalism and decadence, but those symbols become something for artists and Bohemians to adopt for themselves.
On the one hand, heroin has been depicted as a drug with mysterious effects, able to make the user have unspeakable euphoric feelings, fulfill all wishes, and elevate out of the real world. On the other, it has also been described as untouchable and destructive, producing universal and irresistible dependency among all its users. Numerous stories have been written describing how heroin made good people turn evil, made a good woman a prostitute, and drove a healthy person to death. Yet despite the stories describing the terrible fate of addicts, sometimes readers could easily come away with the impression that addicts were adventurous and curious people whose explorations just went sour. (This is from Zhou, 1999, but I'm actually taking it from Gong, 2016.)
Drugs like ketamine and methamphetamine, used by factory workers, truck drivers, KTV frequenters, etc. don't get the same treatment, and they are not cool or Bohemian.

A previous essay I wrote about taking ketamine in China made some readers anxious. Maybe that's why I wanted to bring this up. That essay wasn't particularly anti-drug (obviously, taking illicit drugs is a sign of decadent progressivism, and I don't recommend taking ketamine, except under advice and supervision of a physician), and it also wasn't a hip dope narrative, since I'm not a coastal elite or Bohemian but pure Americana. It's difficult to talk about drug use. Ketamine is as risqué as I'd ever get. But maybe it also made people anxious because apart from the drugs taboo, ketamine is such a dirtbag, sleazy drug, to anyone that would ever come across it.

My own ketamine story (II)

In a recent editorial for the Independent, a ketamine addict attempted to sum up the attractions of the drug: it’s cheap and it delivers “numbness.” I guess I was getting at some of the same thing, talking about young people working on factory lines, doing bumps on their one day off a month, sinking dissociative anesthesia at a KTV. I think of my own ketamine use in a different way, though. I usually took just enough ketamine for its stimulant effects to kick in. When I went deeper, it was more about touching the mud at the bottom of my psyche, like, sinking down to the bottom, grazing the bottom with a big toe, more because I could than because I wanted to see what was down there. And I always held this belief—a convert’s zeal—in the antidepressant powers of the drug:
This is something that I think about, that with China and ketamine, there was some synergistic effect. There was China, this country that broke me with experiences I didn’t expect, broke my heart, played for me constantly its soundtrack of cicadas and jackhammers, so that I had to escape to an island and abandoned village to gather my thoughts. There was no chance to slip inside myself, most of the time. There was no time to think—only act. I wish I could capture something of what I felt there and then, because it sounds ridiculous to even me now. (King, D.L., 2018.)
I was talking there about a trip I took to Lianyungang. I think that was my first time hitchhiking in China, but I might have just taken a train. Details of this story have been lost to me over time. I knew a girl there, named Tingting who I’d met on a trip a year earlier, killing time in an internet bar. I had told her to come visit me in Xuzhou, but she was busy, so I eventually went to see her. She had grown up in Xinyi, not too far away, but inland, and Lianyungang had been where she’d escaped to, tagging along with a friend she met in Xuzhou. She lived in the alleys off Minzhu Road, just over the Dapu River, south of the train station. I crashed at her place, and we went out that night after eating a meal of garlic shoots and pressed tofu, cauliflower and potato, and shredded dog meat and huajiao out of a Styrofoam container. At the eastern end of her street, the city had spent a few years knocking down the low beige buildings that made up most of the city. In their place, they installed a more hygienic version of the old neighborhood. It was supposed to bring tourists. They called it Culture Street. It was still lined with low buildings and shops, and it looked a lot like every other street around there, but the old houses and shops had been replaced by tea shops and souvenir stores, all with consistent and tasteful signage. Culture Street opened up onto a plaza ringed with furniture stores and coffee shops. The tourists never came, so the city eventually allowed a few entrepreneurs to occupy a corner of the plaza at night. It was mostly just a few men running barbecues, selling grilled lamb and beer, but someone eventually opened a sleazy little KTV over there, too. Tingting went there a lot, since she was working with her friend, running a stall on the plaza, selling night market lingerie, which all eventually smelled like vaporized lamb fat and charcoal from barbecues. We got settled in. Her friends showed up. We drank AK-47-brand vodka and Qoo orange drink, and someone took out a bag of ketamine (I think I had it, or I bought it, but I can’t remember, and everyone was on board, anyways). Tingting’s friend cut lines with her bank card and we snorted them. At first, the effects of the ketamine were not discernible from those of vodka and Qoo, but eventually, when I stood to go to the bathroom, I felt that strange dissociative sensation, like being seated in the cockpit of a mecha, piloting my body down the hallway. When I sat down again, I could only bask in the dumb glow, barely able to move my head. I was trying to keep track of what was going on around me, but the room seemed to be suffused in an almost blinding red glow, and frames were going missing from my vision. That night, when we left the KTV, I couldn’t walk. I could only run. Tingting ran beside me, back to her rented room by the train station.

In the morning, a ketamine and liquor hangover gave everything a dreamlike quality—like, after what I did, how I feel, how could the world possibly be running normally, what is all this? Tingting and I shared a cigarette, looking out the window. The last time I had been there, we had gone out to the coast together and hung out on a muddy beach that smelled like sewage, but that time, we took a bus out to an island in the bay. There was a causeway out to it, since developing the island was another attempt at driving tourism. I’d slept out on that island once, right on a concrete pier, in one of the abandoned villages.

The island had a spine of green mountains, and a single road had been cut around the base of it. The road was fresh asphalt where it met the causeway, and if you headed clockwise around the island, toward the resort at the northwest corner, you would stay on fresh blacktop. Tingting and I went the other way. There wasn’t much left along the road, except a few fishing villages with stone houses built carefully on top of one another, running down to rocky beaches. Most of the villages had been abandoned years before, and only occasionally did they see any signs of life—a stray dog, a flag flying, a curl of smoke from a chimney, fish laid out to dry on a patch of concrete, a house up on the road that had been turned into a guest house or a restaurant.

When we were at the far northeast corner of the island, we went down into a village that seemed definitely abandoned. We walked out onto the concrete pier and I took her picture with my CECT slide phone. On the edge of the village, there was a path down to a narrow, rocky beach. I led her along the sandy cliff to where a creek emptied out into the ocean. The sand was brown and cool. The ocean smelled even more like sewage there than it had at the muddy beach near the city. We got undressed and tossed our clothes in a pile on the beach. Her body was mature. Her breasts hung heavy. Her stomach was round. A dark line ran from her navel to the wild mess of her pubic hair. I remember wondering if she was pregnant, and thinking about the dangers of perinatal exposure to ketamine. We waded out until we were waist deep and stood there for a while, swaying with waves. The water was cold, but not cold enough to chase us out. Looking east, all we could see was the muddy ocean and the blue sky. She went back to the beach and I followed her. We got dressed. We laid out a beach towel of newspaper. She unpacked the gimbap we’d bought in the city before walking over the causeway.

We snorted ketamine there off the plastic box the gimbap came in. I asked her how often she took ketamine and she said she didn’t know, not often. We lay back on our newspaper and Tingting started telling me about where she had come from. “The way I grew up,” she said, “as soon as I left my village, it was like going to another world. I remember the first time I went to the market in the next village over. Even that was like going to another planet. I couldn’t even understand the language. My sister left first.” The wind blew and I smelled the ocean. We were out of the sun, but it was growing hot in the late afternoon. “I don’t even remember my mother. She killed herself, when I was still a baby. Her father killed himself, too. It must be in their family.” Tingting seemed to be in a trance. She didn’t expect me to answer. Her imperfect Mandarin lost its precision, and I struggled to follow what she was saying. “I haven’t wanted to kill myself yet. She was gone, so my sister looked after me, but she left. She had to leave. There wasn’t even a high school there—not even in the next village—and she was a good student. My aunt lived in Xuzhou, so she went there. My father went to work in Jinan, and I didn’t want to live with my grandmother, so I went with my sister. My aunt had married a man from Xuzhou, and they were running a restaurant. My aunt started arguing with my sister. She took us back to the village. When she got back there, she started arguing with my father about something.” I looked around for the cigarette I had lit before and found that it was stuck between my fingers, already burned out. “It was about the persimmons. He had a few trees out in the yard. This was in the winter. She saw that the persimmons had rotted on the tree. They were frozen by then, but she could tell they were rotten. He’d been working in the city, so he wasn’t around to pick them, and nobody else had bothered. That made her angry, for whatever reason. It was because he was wasting food and they’d grown up so poor, I guess. She was saying, ‘How are you going to look after two daughters, if you can’t look after a tree?’ He refused to take us back or she refused to give us back.” The sound of the ocean slopping up onto the rocky beach drowned out her voice.

When we woke up, the tide was rolling slowly up the beach. She was still awake, sitting up, staring out at the water. There was no way to go back down the narrow beach to the village, so we went along the cliffside until we found a notch that we could scramble through. We found the road around the island again. When a Renault hatchback rattled by them, Tingting waved for it to stop. We climbed into the backseat. The two boys in the Renault were driving back to the causeway.


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