Are the Beings real? Are any not-human Beings real? Am I being advised by them? Will they arrange for coincidence control to publish what I have written? Will there be repercussions from the human consensus reality if what I have written is published? Can I obtain the advice of the Being in control of my coincidences? — John Lilly, The Scientist: A Metaphysical Autobiography (1978).
An Amer-Anglocentric history of ketamine, 1965 to 2005
A brief history of ketamine in China
The brief history of anesthesiology in modern China and how ketamine came to be Made in China
How the Sino-Vietnamese War fits into this
A brief history of illicit ketamine use in China
An even briefer, even more incomplete history of ketamine in Taiwan, 1987 to 2009, included here to give some contextA Preliminary Explanation
Can the subaltern get stoned?
Syphilis as a parallel
Outrageous moral decline
A first attempt at explaining why ketamine was the perfect drug for the era
Another attempted parallelBack of House
The Ketamine KidFront of House
Interview with a ketamine dealer
An anecdote about selling small amounts of ketamine from a woman giving me a massage in Xi’anTrue Stories from the Ketamine Decade
A not so true story: drug slave
“It's not something that normal people should pursue”Trip Reports
A very brief discussion of literary and filmic representations of illicit drug and addiction, and a justification of self-indulgent dope writing
Northern Jiangsu, 2006
Castle BarThe End of the Line
Anecdotes, sewage, and seizures
Attempting an explanation (I): Boshe and the Lost Decade/Golden Age
Attempting an explanation (II): Changing demographics
Attempting an explanation (III): The drug war was a (partial) success
Attempting an explanation (IV): The stranglehold of methamphetamine
Attempting an explanation (V): The Indian crackdown
Attempting an explanation (VI): Profit motive
Attempting an explanation (VII): It never really endedDecade of Dissociation: Bullshitting
Ketamine with Chinese characteristics
Turn off, tune out
I've always been fascinated by drugs and drug culture. It seems fucking corny now. I lived in a small town on the prairies. The major drugs of abuse there were Alberta Premium rye and Player’s Lights. Drugs seemed transgressive and cool. I was in the middle of nowhere. When I finally got my hands on drugs, I realized I should probably just read about them.
The internet in the 1990s was better at hosting communites built around fringe interests. I spent a lot of time posting on message boards about research chemicals and psilocybin mushrooms. Those communities created their own literature, in the form of text files, circulated on message boards, mailing lists, newsgroup, and IRC channels. The writers of those texts digested trip reports, medical and academic literature, news reports, and personal experience. I wasn’t going to try synthesizing methcathinone or experiment with ibogaine, but I enjoyed reading about them. I hope this is something like those text files, like William White's text on dextromethorphan or John W. Allen's guides to Southeast Asian magic mushrooms that always featured him reclining with clearly underage girls.
This thing I've written is about drugs, and it is also about China, which is my only other area of expertise.
This is about ketamine and China.
Ketamine is a synthetic drug that was popular in the People’s Republic of China and parts of East Asia. The effects of the drug are not like a typical psychedelic or depressant. “On ketamine,” Zachary Mexico writes in China Underground, “you feel disconnected from the temporal reality of ‘the self’; it renders you unable to remember what happened just moments before, and you can't be certain who you are or if you're even alive, anymore.”
I refer to a decade of dissociation and the ketamine decade. I make some attempts to explain why I think the feeling of dissociation fit the age, or why an age of dissociation fit ketamine. I don’t know if that holds up to much scrutiny, but it’s an attempt to sketch out what ketamine culture in China was, between—very roughly—the years 1999 and 2009, and why it might have come to an end.
The epigraph from the Information Office of the State Council is not meant to be ironic. It should be the common goal of people of all countries to create a healthy, civilized, happy and beautiful world. That ideal world—as I conceive of it, at least—doesn’t include adolescents snorting synthetic drugs off phone cases in nightclub corners.
Illicit drugs are a sensitive issue in China, and ketamine rose to the top of the list of national concerns in the 2000s, as the country grappled with ketamine abuse. China formerly made regular pleas to the United Nations to classify ketamine as an illicit narcotic. That would have helped curb the flow of the drug into China, although it would have limited access to the drug for people in developing countries that still rely on it as an inexpensive anesthetic. China has since withdrawn its request, and the ketamine problem in the country has been mostly solved.
Over the past several years, it has become popular to blame China for exporting and manufacturing synthetic drugs and their precursors. That’s not my intention here. Much of the ketamine used in China in the 2000s came from outside the country, manufactured in India, then shipped through the Golden Triangle or by sea routes. China is not lax about enforcement of its drug policy, and it also hasn’t executed its war on drugs with any more cruelty than Western powers.
Most of what I am describing in this text happened ten or twenty years ago. That means that the legal situation for some drugs was different. Drug enforcement was also carried out in a different way. I wouldn’t recommend taking illicit drugs anywhere, but especially not a foreign country.
If you want to take ketamine, it has been approved by many countries in the form of esketamine (marketed as the nasal spray Spravato in the United States) as a cure for treatment-resistant depression.
Some of the science stuff in here could be bullshit, and some of the notation is inconsistent. I’m not a chemist. Please let me know where I’ve gone wrong.
Also, please note: All references to myself taking ketamine or other illicit drugs are complete fiction. I'm pure Americana. Copenhagen Wintergreen and Jim Beam is the strongest stuff I mess with.
An Amer-Anglocentric history of ketamine, 1965 to 2005
In the summer of 1965, three physicians from the Departments of Pharmacology and Anesthesiology at the University of Michigan Medical Center were given a novel compound called CI-581¹ to test on twenty volunteers from a local prison (Domino et al., 1965). Ethical considerations have made that kind of thing—injecting prisoners with powerful psychoactive drugs—less common now, but it doesn’t seem to have given the University of Michigan physicians pause. The prisoners were likely unaware of the results of animal testing of CI-581: central excitatory effects in small mammals (Domino et al., 1965), “...an excited drunken state in rodents, but a cataleptoid immobilized state in pigeons” (Domino, 2010), and, more promisingly, safe and complete anesthesia in monkeys (McCarthy et al., 1965). The pressure was on to get CI-581 tested and put on the market. It was Parke, Davis & Co.’s plan B.² The recipe, cooked up by in-house scientist Calvin Stevens was derived from CI-395 (N-1-phenylcyclohexylpiperidine),³ an earlier failure (Jansen, 2004).
Parke, Davis & Co. had hoped CI-395 would be an inexpensive, reliable, Made in America anesthetic and analgesic, but, starting with animal tests, results were mixed. It caused “yelping and convulsions in dogs,” and agitation in small mammals, but in rhesus macaques it produced “serenity” (Domino, 1978, p. 18), and monkeys that had been aggressive became “became easier to handle” (Balster & Chait, 1978). When it came time to test CI-395 on humans, though, the results were disturbing. Many patients emerging from anesthesia experienced “vestibular and proprioceptive hallucinations with distortion of vision” (Johnstone et al., 1959).⁴ Women were usually in a “happily drunken state,” while men were sometimes “violent and aggressive” (Johnstone et al., 1959). CI-395 “mimicked the primary symptoms of schizophrenia by distorting body image” (Domino, 1978, p. 19).⁵
The prison experiments with CI-581 proved that it was an effective anesthetic, delivering “complete analgesia,” and unconsciousness, with minimal airway issues (Domino et. al, 1965). But, like its big brother, CI-395, there seemed to be something unusual about the effects of CI-581 in humans:
The syndrome immediately following the administration of the drug was of interest. Usually the subject was asked to keep his eyes closed during the procedure. Within a minute after drug injection, the subject reported numbness of the entire body, although sensation to touch remained intact. After 1.0 mg. per kilogram or more of CI-581, the subject would open his eyes and at the same time lose contact with the environment. (Domino et al., 1965.)The prisoners in the test could appear awake and breathing normally, but “unable to respond to sensory input” (Domino et al., 1965; Li & Vlisides, 2016).⁶ On top of that, like CI-395, 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 them 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).
When the researchers presented their findings to Parke, Davis & Co., the pharmaceutical firm was unhappy with some of the language used to describe the drug. Edward F. Domino,⁷ the lead researcher was sent back to edit the paper, adding extensive but mild notes about the strange condition of disconnection from body and environment that the drug caused. The final version of the paper noted that it was “imperative that a new terminology be developed for drugs of this type” and the state of mind they produced.
The term, later credited to Domino’s wife Toni, was “‘dissociative’ anesthesia” (Domino et al., 1965; Domino, 2010; Kelly, 1999; Li & Vlisides, 2016).
The researchers decided that CI-581 was promising enough to warrant “further pharmacologic and clinical trials” (Domino et al., 1965).
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). The drug was ideal for developing countries, since it could be administered with an intramuscular injection, a simple task to train non-physicians in (Phillips et al., 1970), and it had less deadly side effects than opioids, which tended to slow breathing (Losvik et al., 2015; Tran et al., 2014). It was found to be an ideal drug for emergency medicine, which requires superficial anesthesia, rather than complete central nervous system suppression (Corssen, 1980).
Ketamine quickly went into service on the battlefield (Boyd, 1971; Mercer, 2009). It was used in the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), in Southeast Asia by American and allied forces (Cole, 1973), the Yom Kippur War (1973), used by Médecins Sans Frontières volunteers in Afghanistan (1980s) (Blatchley, 1983), in the Falklands War (1983) (Bull et al., 1983), in the Gulf War (1992), and right up until more recent conflicts in Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East (Mabry et al., 2015).⁸
In a better world, the history of ketamine would stop there—it was an anesthetic created by an American firm, helped people in developing countries, and gave a measure of relief to men and women wounded at war. But both anesthetic clinical investigation compounds investigated by Parke, Davis, and Co. in the 1960s went on to have a darker history.
Once again, CI-395—phencyclidine or PCP—blazed the trail. It is recorded as popping up in the recreational drug scene in 1967, not long after it went on the market as a veterinary anesthetic (Lerner & Burns, 1978).
PCP was usually sold as something other than it was, semi-generic pills or powder. It was frequently sold as "THC" pills, "THC" crystals, or simply “horse tranquilizer” (Lerner & Burns, 1978). When other drugs of abuse became difficult to find, it was an ideal substitute (Lerner & Burns, 1978; Taylor, 2011). Timothy Leary chalked up the “horrid PCP mania” to a shortage of LSD (Leary, 1983b), but, judging by the working class crowd that indulged in the drug, there may have been shortages of marijuana or amphetamines that PCP was filling. In a way, it was like the synthetic cannabinoids (K2, spice) or methcathinone (bath salts) of its day: a synthetic drug spread as a result of enforcement activities targeted at more infamous illicit drugs.
At first, it was possible to divert PCP from legitimate sources, but clandestine manufacturing began as soon as that supply was cracked down on (Lerner & Burns, 1978; Shulgin & Maclean, 1976). Once clandestine synthesis began, other compounds started to appear on the street, like 1-piperidinocyclohexanecarbonitrile (PCC), 1-(1-phenylcyclohexyl) pyrrolidine (PHP), PCE, and most frequently TCP. (See Morgan & Kagan, 1980, Siegel, 1978, and Taylor, 2011 for more on PCP’s short history in human anesthesiology and its lengthy history as a recreational drug.) It’s possible that ketamine was adopted first as a safer alternative to PCP and TCP, or it was simply easier to find.
Between ketamine’s first appearance as an anesthetic and the first time someone took it to get high, probably only a matter of months elapsed (Jansen, 2004; Lankenau, 2006; Reier, 1971; Siegel, 1978).⁹ The first place where ketamine was widely abused was in San Francisco and Los Angeles in 1971, where it was sold as a powder called “K,” but also “1980 Acid,” and “Special LA Coke” (Siegel, 1978).
Despite the chemical similarities between the two drugs, and my own suspicion that ketamine was first used as a PCP substitute, research from the time seems to suggest that PCP and ketamine eventually served different markets.¹⁰ PCP pulled in a working class crowd:
Those who are today using PCP, tend to come from a different place, both socio-economically and in their drug-taking behavior. Rather than the middle class seekers of the new sensate worlds to explore, PCP is, today, becoming the drug of choice of the lower class oppressed minority group member seeking an escape from persecution. In the past s/he has found this escape in other depressant drugs such as heroin and barbiturates. Today PCP not only provides that escape, but also produces a degree of increased awareness that is different enough to be interesting, and mild enough not to be too frightening… (Stickgold, 1977, quoted in Siegel, 1978.)And, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, ketamine seems to have attracted the same young, white middle class Americans that were taking LSD.¹¹
There are two plausible, parallel origin stories for ketamine breaking out of a few doper communities in California. The first is that 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; 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).
In the late 1970s, while PCP was being vilified in a moral panic that recalled the anti-marijuana panic of the 1930s (Morgan & Kagan, 1980; Taylor, 2011),¹² ketamine, a similar arylcyclohexylamine derived from PCP,¹³ was being trumpeted as the future of the psychedelic movement in books like John Lilly’s The Scientist (1978) and Marcia Moore and Howard Altounian’s Journeys into the Bright World (1978).
Lilly’s experiments with ketamine and his book about the drug turned him into the Timothy Leary of ketamine. Like Leary, he was an unlikely figurehead for the psychedelic movement. The son of a Minnesota beef baron, Lilly got a medical degree from the 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 Scientist was his ketamine (and sensory deprivation tank) 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 being “seduced by K,” and 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). The book, written in the third person, also details various accidents and bizarre behavior while on ketamine:
In the state induced by the chemical, his interlock with the external reality became disconnected. The bicycle was traveling about thirty miles an hour down the twisting, turning road. Suddenly the chain came off, the rear wheel locked, and John hit the road. He tried to roll to avoid damage but landed on his right shoulder, breaking his collar bone, his scapula, and three ribs and puncturing his right lung. (Lilly, 1978, 188.)
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.¹⁴
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. In the United States, ketamine remained unscheduled, which meant that it was basically legal to possess. The United States Drug Enforcement Agency proposed moving it to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act in 1981, but concluded finally that there was no potential for abuse, and a clear medical use. It had an equally lax legal status in most of the West, including the U.K.
It seems likely that most illicit ketamine in that time period was either sold as something else, or provided to a small group of psychedelic cognoscenti, and would have gone into remission if not for the influence of European dance culture and a perfect partner in 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, or ecstasy).¹⁵ The British were still carrying drugs home from Ibiza and Goa, and ecstasy and ketamine both gained a foothold in the acid house and rave scenes there by the late 1980s (Jansen, 2004), before spreading through Europe (Soudijn & Vijbrief, 2011).
Ecstasy had flooded Europe, but when ketamine use spread from European scenes to New York and other club culture hot spots (Dotson et al., 1995; Jansen, 2004; Lankenau, 2006), clubbers stateside without steady access to ecstasy started using ketamine by itself (Southwell & Durjava, 2013).¹⁶
So in the late nineties, more than 20 years after ketamine made its debut as a drug used by spiritual journeyers, it became widespread among a much wider group of users on the club scene. To many of these new enthusiasts, ketamine had the appearance of an almost dream drug that managed to offer the cocaine-like stimulation, the opiate-like calming and the cannabis-like imagery, while at the same time it provided a full-on dissociative and hallucinogenic experience with no apparent disadvantages or collateral damage. (Southwell & Durjava, 2013).In the United States, ketamine slowly migrated from the coasts into the rest of the country again.¹⁷
The legal status of the drug also made ketamine appealing, but that would soon change.
It seemed a clear enough threat to kids that a 1997 Time article warned: “This is not your father's groovy toke” (Cloud, 1997). In 1999, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) once again pushed for it to be scheduled, and unlike the last time they had tried in the early 1980s, there was plenty of evidence of its abuse potential.
A similar panic started around ketamine’s lax legal status, and it was reclassified as a Class C drug in 2006. In the U.K., ketamine had also moved deeper into the country, starting from London. It was increasingly being adopted by “often very young kids from both rural and inner city areas” that liked ketamine for the numbing buzz it delivered (Southwell & Durjava, 2013; and Dalgarno & Shewan, 2012 has a survey of Scottish ketamine users, who fit that description). It “offered a way out of their frustrating, alienated and marginalised lives” (Southwell & Durjava, 2013). There are fewer sources for ketamine culture outside of the United States, the U.K., and Europe—and the available sources are often in a foreign language.
Most of the story takes place far from New York or London. Trafficking, clandestine manufacturing, and illicit use of ketamine began on a large scale in Asia (Liao et al., 2017), and most of the world’s ketamine is made in India (“Black market ketamine dealer caught on camera in India,” 2011; Chakraborty et al., 2011) or Mexico (Liao et al., 2017; Wolff & Winstock, 2006). It’s appeared as a drug of abuse in Russia and Eastern Europe (Gorun et al., 2011; Institóris et al., 2013; Jansen, 2004), Southeast Asia (“Ketamine: From India to Asia Part 1 – Malaysia,” 2012; Poshyachinda et al., 2005; Singh et al., 2013), the Middle East (Akghari et al., 2018; Kraus, 2016), and in China.
A brief history of ketamine in China
The brief history of anesthesiology in modern China and how ketamine came to be Made in ChinaBefore 1949, the majority of Chinese people lived in the countryside (Xiao et al., 2018). The problem after 1949 was providing modern medicine to the majority of those rural Chinese who previously had no access to modern medicine and the urbanites who had never been able to afford it (Dobson, 1981; Tu, 2018). Chinese anesthesiology equipment and expertise lagged the West by decades, even at well-funded hospitals (胡世全, 2017). Leading the charge for reform were five anesthesiologists that had returned from stints overseas: Shang Deyan 尚德延, Xie Rong 谢荣, Wu Jue 吴珏, Li Xingfang 李杏芳, and Tan Huiying 谭蕙英 (Feng et al., 2014; 胡世全, 2017; Sim et al., 2000).
Their guides to anesthesia, including Xie Rong’s Guide to Clinical Anesthesiology (Línchuáng Mázuìxué Jiǎngyì 临床麻醉学讲义) and Wu Jie’s Practical Anesthesiology (Shíyòng Mázuìxué 实用麻醉学), changed the way that anesthesiology was thought of and practiced, and the books were often used by those without advanced medical training, including volunteer medics in the Korean War (胡世全, 2017). The ease with which laymen could put to practice the suggestions of the guides attests to the rudimentary nature of anesthesia in China in the 1950s.¹⁸ Anesthesia consisted mostly of ether, chloroform, and possibly morphine, with local anesthetic (Feng et al., 2014); free-standing anesthesia machines were hard to come by, with only those surviving American imports, then, eventually Made in China versions (Feng et al., 2014).¹⁹
It’s hard to say what would have been, if not for the Sino-Soviet split in 1956, and the launch of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. China’s relative isolation made it hard to keep up with advances in the outside world, with political chaos, anesthesiology research and the pharmaceutical industry was—if not completely dormant, then at least—distracted. Shang Deyan and Xie Rong both suffered revolutionary criticism (胡世全, 2017),²⁰ and the other anesthesiologist returnees were generally sidelined as there was an ideological and pragmatic push for research into indigenous plants and techniques, like acupuncture (Chen, 1962; Feng et al., 2014).
After the Cultural Revolution died down, scientists went back to work.
Ketamine was synthesized in the early 1970s, with American-educated anesthetists again leading the way. The first Chinese-language reference to ketamine seems to be in a 1972 article by the Beijing University Pharmaceutical Research Group 北京大学制药厂科研组 in the Chinese Journal of Pharmaceuticals 医药工业, which describes the university’s success in producing the compound. They noted that it was an ideal drug for the battlefield, and cases of shock. Xie Rong pops up again in an unpublished 1973 internal document that describes the first clinical tests of ketamine.²¹
In Chinese, it was described as lǜ’àntóng 氯胺酮.²²
How the Sino-Vietnamese War fits into thisEveryone probably knows the basics of the Second Indochina War, with the Vietnam People's Army (PAVN) and the National Front for the Liberation of Vietnam (NLF) guerilla force battling the United States and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) for control of Vietnam, but the stories of the First and Third Indochina Wars are less well known. The first conflict set up the second, and, eventually, the third, and that Third Indochina War is a large part of the story of ketamine in China, and connects directly back to the history of Chinese anesthesia. This is mostly filler, but, honestly, throughout this text, I do make reference to both conflicts, Southeast Asia, and China’s borderlands, so it seems okay to sketch out a brief introduction.²³
Sometime in the late 19th century, when the French consolidated their control over Southeast Asia. For nearly a century, until France fell to the Third Reich in 1940, the French ruled much of Southeast Asia as French Indochina. The Vichy regime was compelled to allow the Japanese Empire, then expanding across Asia, concessions in their former imperial holdings. That state of affairs couldn’t hold for long. Toward the end of the Second World War, the Japanese grew restless and orchestrated a coup d'état in French Indochina, which caught French and local forces off guard. Three new states emerged from what had been Indochina: the Empire of Vietnam, the Kingdom of Kampuchea, and the Kingdom of Luang Prabang. When the Japanese surrendered and France was liberated, the French re-established their control over the region.
It was too late to turn back the clock on colonialist dreams. The French Empire and Indochina was replaced by the French Union. Independence movements that had gained strength and momentum in the aftermath of French retreat and Japanese intervention fought for their right to govern themselves.
In the First Indochina War (1946-1954), the Viet Minh fought for the independence of Vietnam, and, after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, negotiated their way into a country divided in two at the 17th Parallel; Norodom Sihanouk declared Cambodian independence in 1953; and Laos earned its independence. What followed was two decades of civil war and foreign intervention across Southeast Asia. Even before the establishment of New China in 1949, the Chinese had been involved in affairs in Southeast Asia. The Kuomintang worked with the Vietnamese independence movement (Chen, 1969; Jian, 1993), and unofficially, pro-Communist Party guerillas were making incursions across the border into Indochina (Calkins, 2013), but they were balls deep in the region by the beginning of the First Indochina War and the conflicts that followed, they were balls deep (Calkins, 2013; Zhai, 2000).
When the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north went to war with the Republic of Vietnam in the south, the Chinese joined the Soviets in supplying arms and advisors to the north, a counterweight to the hundreds of thousands of American, South Korean, Thai, Laotian, Australian, and Filipino troops supporting the south.
In Laos, the Communist Pathet Lao, was also supported by the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, in their fight against the U.S.-supported Royal Lao Government. In Cambodia, the China- and North Vietnam-backed Khmer Rouge fought the government forces of Sihanouk.
Things tilted in China’s favor, for the most part. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam finally gained the upper hand in 1975 and unified the country as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The Pathet Lao took power in 1975 and established the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Sihanouk was overthrown, and the Khmer Rouge established Democratic Kampuchea in 1975.
As the wars in Southeast Asia wound down after 1975, the Khmer Rouge, headed by Pol Pot, feared that the newly unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam would seize on its momentum, occupy the rest of Southeast Asia, and run it like French Indochina. The Cambodians launched attacks across the border, which were repelled by the massively superior Vietnamese military. The Chinese attempted to negotiate some sort of a peace between the two states, but the Vietnamese made ready to force a change of regime in Cambodia. Vietnamese troops took Phnom Penh, Pol Pot and the gang fled to Thailand, the Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Council was put in power, they declared the People's Republic of Kampuchea, and China was extremely pissed off. There had been growing tension between China and Vietnam since the 1970s, with clashes along the border (Li, 2007), but the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge was the final straw. China made ready to go to war with Vietnam. Chinese forces had engaged in a bloody battle in Korea (1950-1953) (called by the Chinese the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea, kàng-Měi-yuán-Cháo 抗美援朝战争), which saw the People's Volunteer Army suffering massive casualties,²⁴ had a brief skirmishes with Indian troops in 1962 and 1967, clashed with Soviet troops across the border from Heilongjiang in 1969, and the military had intervened in internal conflicts in Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as battling with rowdy Red Guards—but the Vietnamese troops and militias were battle-hardened, and they had just kicked out the United States after a two decade-long struggle.
Contemporary Chinese reports called the Defensive Counterattack against Vietnam (duì Yuè zìwèi fǎnjī zhàn 对越自卫反击战) a success, but, if so, it was a Pyrrhic victory. PLA commanders were unimpressed by the "poor discipline, low morale, combat ineffectiveness” (Li, 2007, p. ), and the tens of thousands of casualties on the Chinese side (Chen, 1987, p. 114). When China retreated, they claimed that their message had been delivered.
The conflict stretched on, though. In 1981, at the Battle of Faka Mountain the PLA threw a regiment over the Vietnamese border, saw it repelled, then spent the rest of the year fighting back Vietnamese raiders in Guangxi. There were similar clashes sporadically through the 1980s, until the two countries nominalized ties in 1991.
Through all the violence and conflict of the previous century, battlefield anesthesia had been very limited. If you went into shock fighting Vietnamese border marauders in the ‘70s, or you got horribly burned in a Soviet mortar attack up in Heilongjiang, there was ether and local anesthetic. If you could make it to a hospital, the situation would improve, but there would be plenty of agony along the way. There was a reason that the Beijing University Pharmaceutical Research Group had emphasized ketamine as a key element in “battle preparedness.” The unpublished internal document that Xie Rong wrote in 1973 was of interest to the leadership of the Party and military because battlefield anesthesia was so crucial to keeping a military fighting.
The first reference to the use of ketamine in the war with Vietnam comes from Jin Bing 靳冰 in the People's Liberation Army Journal of Medicine (Jiěfàngjūn Yīxué Zázhì 解放军医学杂志).²⁵ He describes what’s needed in a battlefield anesthetic—safe, effective, and easy for non-professionals to use—and how ketamine fits those requirements.²⁶ He explained that local anesthetic was what most troops in Guangxi and Yunnan had access to, but that ketamine anesthesia was gaining ground (靳冰, 1979). By 1981, at the Battle of Faka Mountain, ketamine was widely available (罗炳炎 et al., 1983)
Chinese researchers were carrying out tests on patients throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but the Sino-Vietnam border was where most of the country’s ketamine was going.
A brief history of illicit ketamine use in ChinaWhile American troops returning from Southeast Asia with a taste for ketamine may have spurred the illicit trade in the drug, there are no references to People’s Liberation Army soldiers succumbing to the same temptation.
The drug was widely available, being used by the military, but also by civilian doctors. A search of the China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI) database turns up more than a thousand publications on the topic of ketamine as an anesthetic between 1979 and 1999,²⁷ most of them related to civilian use.
However, there don’t seem to be any references to ketamine as a drug of abuse in China before the very end of the 1990s. At that point, the drug exploded in Hong Kong, possibly imported by expatriate partiers returning from Goa, who were taking advantage of medical-grade ketamine diverted from pharmaceutical manufacturers in the Indian state of Maharashtra (Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 2008).²⁸
In Hong Kong, ketamine became a popular companion to ecstasy, which was already entrenched in the city, with low doses being used for the 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.”²⁹ (Lyn, 2007.)It’s hard to say at that point where the drugs were coming from and why they were cheaper in the Mainland. Was it cheaper 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? Probably both. Definitely the former, though. The pharmaceutical companies that once turned out battlefield anesthetic for brave PLA boys in the jungles of Vietnam were 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.)In the 2000s, pharmaceutical companies cranked up their ketamine production, and their supply started to disappear into the black market. In 2002, a factory in Shanxi that switched from making run-of-the-mill antimicrobials to cranking out orders of ketamine for Taiwanese and Hong Kong cartels
35 pharmaceutical businesses in eight provinces were investigated by authorities in 2003 after a pair of drug dealers were found with 150 kg of ketamine from Shandong Fangming Pharmaceutical, which they intended to export to Taiwan and Guangdong ("China Firm Embroiled in Ketamine Scandal," 2004; 湖南侦破最大K粉原液流失案, 2004).
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. 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).³⁰
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).
An even briefer history of ketamine in Hong Kong and Taiwan, 1999 to 2010Hong Kong has already appeared several times as the source of Mainland ketamine culture, introduced through Shenzhen or Guangzhou, but it might be worthwhile sketching out what happened there after the drug slipped into the PRC. I’ve already quoted the figure of 60% of party goers in 2001 testing positive, going to 73% in 2006 (from total number of reported drug users under age 21, figures in Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 2008). Ketamine was first used with ecstasy by avant garde clubbers, but quickly became its own thing, filtering down to working class adolescents (Joe-Laidler, 2005). “Leisure sites for ketamine use” expanded from clubs to include “homes, karaoke clubs, game centres and public areas” (Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 2008). Ketamine became the drug of choice for people under 35 (Cheung & Cheung, 2018).
Taiwan was spared by its isolation and its authoritarian government from the methamphetamine and heroin epidemics that plagued Japan (Brill & Hirose, 1980) and Hong Kong (Kam & Harrison, 2010), respectively (Li et al., 2005), experiencing only occasional minor fads for huffing solvents, pentazocine (Talwin), flunitrazepam (Rohypnol), methaqualone (Quaalude, Sopor, and, combined with diphenhydramine, Mandrax), and barbiturates (Yu et al., 1998 gives a rough sketch of the history of these "small-scale substance abuse episodes").³¹ But once martial law was lifted in 1987, things began to change (for more on political changes in Taiwan and the situation with illicit drugs, see Hsu, 2014, and its expanded Chinese-language version, 許良因, & 劉名峰, 2017).
Organized crime (or the black society, hēishèhuì 黑社会) was always a factor in Taiwan, but it kicked into high gear following the end of martial law and during the economic boom that followed (Ferry, 2016; Yu et al., 1998). Taiwanese organized crime took advantage of the opening up to strengthen ties with Japanese groups looking for a new amphetamines manufacturing and shipping hub to move to after a crackdown on drugs in South Korea, where the government was sprucing up ahead of the 1988 Olympics (Chouvy & Meissonnier, 2004). In 1990, Taiwan launched their own crackdown on methamphetamine, sending local manufacturers over to Fujian, where they found a business-friendly environment full of people that shared a language and an entrepreneurial spirit, and they could make use of the smuggling infrastructure set up to move heroin off the Mainland (Zhou, 1999). Much of the methamphetamine produced in Fujian was sent back to Taiwan, both for shipment on to Japan and Korea but also to feed a growing market in Taiwan (Zhou, 1999, p. 129 for details on trends in seizures).
Similar to Hong Kong and the Mainland, methamphetamine became the hardcore second choice of heroin addicts, but also something that could be appreciated by the casual user (Li et al., 2005)—between 1991 and 1996, amphetamines were the most commonly abused substance among Taiwanese high school students (Chou et al., 1999), with flunitrazepam finishing somewhere near the top. Ketamine started horning its way in around the same time that it was spreading through the PRC (Li et al., 2011; Li et al., 2019). Less than ten kilograms of ketamine was seized in 2001, but that went up to 613 kilograms in 2004 (Li et al., 2005). 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 drugs (Lua et al., 2003). Surveys of Taiwanese school students showed that ketamine was replacing traditional downers like benzodiazepines and mild opiates (Huang et al., 2014; Lee et al., 2012).
There was a generational split in drug use, with older users preferring methamphetamine and heroin, while their kids were taking ketamine,³² designer amphetamines,³³ MDMA, and later, synthetic cannabinoids (Lee et al., 2013). Ketamine was also found to be the most common first illicit drug experience for the generation that came of age after 2000 (Chang et al., 2019), much like kids in the West usually come across marijuana before anything else. Ketamine was also often combined with other drugs, especially amphetamines and MDMA (Chen et al., 2017; Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 2008).
A Preliminary Explanation
Is it possible to work out a figure for the number of people that tried ketamine in China during the decade of dissociation?
Yes, maybe. But I’m not sure how reliable it would be.
The first step is removing Hong Kong SAR from calculations, and also Taiwan. There is more data from both regions, like urine tests, the surveys of Taiwanese students, numbers of people entering drug rehabilitation facilities, and it tends to separate out ketamine from the generic “synthetic drugs” category that sometimes also includes methamphetamine. It’s going to skew the results, though, since there are fewer reliable numbers from the Mainland.
Before we get to ketamine specifically, how many people in China have used illicit drugs?
Numbers for registered drug addicts are the tip of the iceberg, but might as well start with the tip. The registration and treatment of addicts is part of a movement in the 2000s to move away from Strike Hard campaigns (Baldwin, 2013). Although the effort was directed from the top as part of an overall social stability and harmony campaign, results have been uneven, hampered by lack of cooperation between various authorities, and the continued stigmatization of drug use. Compulsory rehability has mostly replaced reform through labor. Drug use is considered an administrative offence, while trafficking and production are criminal offenses that can result in the death penalty (Tibke, 2017). The Chinese government’s Annual Report on Drug Control gives numbers of registered drug addicts: there were 901,000 in 2001, and that number went up to 1.5 million by 2010 (Zhang & Chin, 2016).³⁴
Most addicts reported heroin and methamphetamine as their drugs of choice (Zhang & Chin, 2016).³⁵ In 2001, 82.7% of registered users were heroin addicts, and by 2010, that had fallen to 68.9%. Most surveys and official reports lump methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs together (Fang et al., 2006), making it difficult to come to a firm number on ketamine, but the official numbers claimed approximately 170,000 ketamine addicts in 2008 (刘志民 et al., 2014; Liao et al., 2017). And it starts to get even more difficult when most addicts report polydrug abuse, including heroin addicts taking synthetic drugs (Sun et al., 2014).³⁶
There is another problem, which is that many addicts are not registered, and it’s hard to get numbers on regular or casual users (Pan, 2018). So, we can look at at-risk populations and geographic areas, and get an idea of how many more there might be. Research into the illicit drug habits of a medium-sized sample of migrant men in Shanghai, including those that worked in the sex trade, concluded that “resurgence [of illicit drug use] after 30 years of drug control gives cause for concern,” with 9% reporting lifetime use of drugs (Wong et al., 2010). A survey of Yunnan residents 15-64 years old, in a province awash in drugs, right beside the Golden Triangle, 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). A 2002 survey of 67,319 people in six “high-prevalence areas” found 1.6% lifetime prevalence of illicit drug use, with most using heroin (Hao et al., 2002).³⁷
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.
There is not much wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) data from before 2012, so we have to take a guess based on later analysis, which showed methamphetamine still ascendant and ketamine use declining. 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).
The government’s Annual Report on Drug Control shows 1.76 tons of ketamine seized in 2003, and 4.9 tons seized in 2010. Ketamine beat heroin in seizure totals in 2007 and 2008, but never overtook methamphetamine. Seizures can be a red herring, though, since 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.
Pan Suiming 潘绥铭, a sex researcher at Renmin University, after looking at all of the official numbers, and bringing in his experience with sexual minority communities, arrived at a figure of 26 million people between the age of 20 and 49 having tried drugs in their lifetimes by 2014, which would be a 0.03% lifetime prevalence for the age group (Pan, 2018). Now, if we agree most of them were using heroin and methamphetamine, and ketamine was only available as an illicit drug in China starting around 1997, coming into some prominence between 2003 and 2010, and we know the general picture from drug seizures and more recent WBE data, we could unscientifically half that figure, then half it again to come up with a stab in the dark: let’s say 6.5 million people 20-49 tried ketamine, a 0.096% prevalence rate. I think that is a liberal estimate.
There are better numbers for the United States, which claims 3% lifetime prevalence of ketamine use (Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health, 2016), which would be close to a million people having tried ketamine. The United States has a higher lifetime illicit drug use prevalence,³⁸ but also a much smaller population than China; and more ketamine has been seized in China than has been seized in the United States.
This is all to say: it’s to figure out how many people used ketamine in the decade after it hit the Mainland.
Can the subaltern get stoned?“The principal human rights story in China,” Michael Dutton writes in Streetlife China (1998), “is a tale of movement” (8). The story here is about movement, too. And not just subaltern workers marching into the ranks of the global proletariat,³⁹ shifting between city and country and town and village and back again, but as Dutton says, also a complete movement from “one mode to another,” from the socialist economy to the postsocialist socialist market economy. Workers suddenly had the freedom to sell their labor, and they had to find someone to buy it. They moved around. The movement of workers allowed ketamine to flit around the country. Even the flesh trade returned! The new market mindset declared that even human bodies were for sale, so what was wrong with selling or diverting or transporting an innocuous white powder? What was ketamine—or methamphetamine or heroin—but another consumer good?
The Hong Kong experience as it relates to social changeThrough the 1990s, as ketamine use was skyrocking in Hong Kong, the region was undergoing its own social upheaval, directly connected to what was happening on the other side of the border. Hong Kong was being transformed from a manufacturing center to a finance and services-based economy (Chiu, 2020). “Faced with high competition and uncertainty of the future,” Cheung & Cheung write in the epilogue that accompanies their longitudinal study of drug use in Hong Kong, “more and more young people were involved in recreational drug use as a way to respond to tough reality...” (95). Other writers on ketamine in Hong Kong speculated that one of its appeals might be its “ability to transcend the boredom and stress experienced by working class young persons” (Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 2008). Compared to Hong Kong, social change across the border was even more abrupt, radical, and disruptive.
Syphilis as a parallelSometime in the 1960s, China eliminated venereal disease (Dikötter, 1993). At the same time that American youths were passing around genital warts, pubic lice, and syphilis, the Chinese were free of yellow discharge, burning during urination, and itchy genitals.⁴⁰ Now, forty or fifty years on, syphilis rates in China have edged out those in the United States.
George Hatem (also known as Ma Haide 马海德) is usually credited with spearheading the anti-syphilis program. He came to Shanghai from the United States in the 1930s, with a stop in Geneva for medical school. They buried him in Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery. Like all the great foreign martyrs, and like Mao Zedong himself, he married an actress, Zhou Sufei 周苏菲. With all due respect to the memories of Zhou and Ma, she likely had syphilis herself. Everyone had syphilis.
The Republic of China (1911-1949), proclaimed after the fall of the Qing empire, was an era of social and political fragmentation. ... The collapse of the empire was also followed by a phase of expansion of STDs, a phenomenon caused by the relaxation of the registration of public houses, increased social mobility, the geographical distribution of venereal disease by itinerant warlord troops and the general disintegration of traditional standards of behaviour. (Dikötter, 1993.)Estimates for the total population prevalence of syphilis ranged as high as 60% (Dikötter, 1995, p. 129). Syphilis was seen as a sign of social degeneration and a cause of racial decline (Dikötter, 1993). After Liberation, syphilis was seen as a relic of the old society (jiù shèhùi 旧社会):
Ma and his colleagues attacked the disease first as a social ill to be defeated. "The opening talk," he said, "would be brief and to-the-point and would go something like this: 'Comrades, syphilis is a disease that was bequeathed to us by the rotten society we have thrown out. It's no fault of yours if you have syphilis and no shame should be attached to it. ... We've got rid of the landlords and the blood-sucking government that looked after their interests and now we should all be concerned about the well-being of everyone else. Comrades, we're going forward to Communism and we can't take this rotten disease with us.'" (Porter, 1997, p. 217.)Hatem helped eliminate the disease in the 1960s, but it returned with a vengeance. The first fresh cases of syphilis were reported in 1979 (Hesketh et al, 2008), and it spread fast in the social upheaval of the 1990s and 2000s (Tucker et al., 2010).
That social upheaval was synonymous with the sudden liberation from work units and hometowns of a young working class.⁴¹ Rapid export growth in the late 1990s and early 2000s brought millions of workers out of their hometowns to work in the manufacturing and service sectors, mostly in the 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). As workers bounced between the PRD, the YRD, and home, sexually-transmitted diseases spread with them.
Drug use, too, which had been at epidemic levels through the first part of the century, mostly disappeared from China by the 1960s (Dikötter et al., 2004). But with everyone moving around, and an open border with Hong Kong, once you rub a bit of ketamine around that orifice, it quickly spreads… A few workers in the PRD get into it, a few go back home to Changsha or Zhengzhou, carrying it with them, and a few go out to the YRD to work, where someone figures out that the pharmaceutical firms there are turning out tons of the stuff...
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 that the PRD and YRD were epicenters of ketamine use, let’s assume—and anecdotally this is true, I think—that they drugged pretty hard, too.
Outrageous moral decline"Finally," Zhang Hongliang 张宏良 writes in a piece marking the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party of China in 2011, "look at the past three decades, 1981 to present, which covers quite neatly the period of Reform and Opening: the two outstanding features of this period are, first, the amazing speed with which wealth has been generated, and, second, outrageous moral decline. China has seen a rate of moral decline unprecedented in recorded history." He sums up the era as being one where "no soul was left uncorrupted, no object spared counterfeiting, no drop of water or bite of food left uncontaminated" (张宏良, 2011). That's one way to put it.
A first attempt at explaining why ketamine was the perfect drug for the eraKetamine was mostly free of the gender codes of boozing (Cochrane et al., 2003 for gender; Wu et al., 2008 for socioeconomics of drinking). It was not as aggressively masculine as liquor.⁴² This must have helped 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).
Ketamine was cheap enough to entertain friends with,⁴³ and there was no expectation to furnish everyone at a party with it. 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.
The work that everyone was doing, too, probably made ketamine appealing:
Assembly-line work is highly repetitive, mechanical, and does not have training and regular paths for career advancement, all of which do not help them to pursue a new life in highly competitive cities. As predicted by the job strain model, high job demands combined with a lack of autonomy in decision-making can result in stress. ... Workers may feel like a rivet in a gigantic impersonal machine. (Lau et al., 2012.)You don't necessarily want to get up with methamphetamine after spending the day at a factory. I mean, I wouldn't. Sweet oblivion is preferable.
And ketamine at low doses has a light stimulant effect (Li & Vlisides, 2016; Wolff & Winstock, 2006). Getting drunk then hitting a few bumps, there’s a positive synergistic effect between booze and ketamine. It can slow down time or speed it up, depending on your mood. 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. But we'll get into that more later.
Another attempted parallelSyphilis tracks the spread of ketamine and methamphetamine fairly neatly, but I am still looking for drug phenomenons in China or beyond that I could compare to the ketamine decade.
In China, opium is often the reference point, so, could we look back to the history of opium? Maybe we could separate it temporarily from the legitimate nationalistic narrative of the poisoning policy (dúhuà zhèngcè 毒化政策) and drugs being forced on the Chinese by the hated British. There are similarities, I suppose: ketamine and opium both started out as legitimate medicines that became illicit working class escapes (Newman, 1995; Zheng, 2003).
The comparison falls apart when you consider how widespread opium was in the 19th and early 20th century (Dikötter et al., 2004). Over 6500 metric tons came into China in 1880 alone (Reins, 1991), an amount that was eclipsed by domestic production, with 35,300 metric tons being of opium produced in the country in 1906 (Trocki, 1999, p. 96). Most of that domestic opium was consumed in the country, and opium dens and retail operations were everywhere (Trocki, 1999, p. 127). By 1890, there may have been 40 million addicts in the country—and that number only went up (Trocki, 1999, p. 127). Ketamine was popular, but it wasn’t that popular.
Maybe heroin and morphine in the early 20th century is the right comparison? It was semi-synthetic, easy to transport, dirt cheap, and again, a working man's drug (Dikötter et al., 2004, p. 176). The numbers are still too high. As part of the Republican government’s plan to destroy the opium trade, they essentially took it over, allowing production and sale to registered addicts, so the numbers are probably reliable: in 1937, there were more than four million addicts, about twice the number of registered addicts during any year in the past two decades of the People’s Republic of China.
But so, why not just compare the Chinese ketamine decade to ketamine use everywhere else? It doesn’t work. I promise you. The users were different. Ketamine users in the West tend to be middle class urbanites (Dillon et al., 2003; Lankenau & Clatts, 2005). Ketamine was a psychedelic dissociative in the West, a psychonaut’s tool, something hip therapists gave their clients in the 1970s, a post-MDMA comedown, an accessory to ecstasy… You have quotes like this:
Ecstasy hinted at how powerful the mind could be, and once first gear was mastered, there was a second gear, and a third. Compared to MDMA, Vitamin K was tenth gear. Where everyone who favored Ecstasy spoke of its mildness, the K people always led off by talking about its power. It was wild and strong—five thousand times stronger than LSD, one user told me after I pressed him for a comparison, although we both knew that in these realms numerical comparisons were meaningless. (Stevens, 1998, p. 294.)Of course, that’s mostly burnout baby boomer drug romance junk, but it gets at how ketamine was viewed by users in the West. The idea that ketamine could be “more potent and intense than LSD” might surprise casual ketamine users in China (Kelly, 1999, p. 19), if they were even familiar with LSD.
Chinese users treated ketamine differently: they were more likely to want to chill out on it, or just use it as a way to cut down on the amount they spent on booze at the club or KTV, “sit down and float” (Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 2008). Chinese users of ketamine tended to take the drug at lower doses, snorting in an hour about a tenth of what would be required for strong psychedelic effects.⁴⁴ 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”).⁴⁵
Rather than ketamine in China and ketamine in the West, a better comparison might be between ketamine in China and PCP in the West.
Like ketamine, PCP was a dissociative hallucinogen, but it was rarely treated by its users as a psychonautic tool—it was a way to get fucked up, “different enough to be interesting, and mild enough not to be too frightening” (Stickgold, 1977, quoted in Siegel, 1978). PCP was nearly the only hallucinogen that monkeys would self-administer (Siegel, 1978).
It was a working class drug, while other hallucinogens were clearly middle class diversions. By the late 1970s, the majority of users in California, where the drug was the most popular, were black and Hispanic or working class whites (Graeven, 1978; Peterson & Stillman, 1978). The majority of those users were not addicts, taking the drug rarely, whenever they encountered it, and usually less than ten times in their lives, motivated by "curiosity about PCP and a desire to experience the anticipated drug effects of tranquilization, euphoria, inebriation, dissociation, and hallucinations" (Siegel, 1978).
Like ketamine, PCP was often made close to home. It was cranked out by labs in places like Baltimore, Gary, and San Jose (DEA Intelligence Division, 2003), rather than trucked over the border or flown in.
And PCP’s run was about the same as ketamine’s: popped up around 1967, peaked in 1976, and it had mostly disappeared from public consciousness by the 1980s, confined to a few geographical areas.⁴⁶
Back of House
Who was making all the ketamine? Well, pharmaceutical factories, mostly. And who was selling it? Like all drugs, once you get below the wholesale level, most of it was being sold in small quantities by users. The illicit drug market in China followed the trends of the age: state-owned companies forced to compete on the free-ish market, manufacturers going out into Southeast Asia to find cheaper inputs and labor, and the individualistic entrepreneurial spirit infecting everyone, even if very few ever got rich.
Li Zuoshu had kept his appointment for the meeting with Boss Ling at the Grand Hotel, but he wasn’t expecting much.⁴⁷ The writing was on the wall, as far as he was concerned. Anyone with the cash to save the decaying state-owned pharmaceutical factory he supervised would have gone directly to the Party bosses of the province, who had their headquarters right next to the hotel. When Boss Ling was led into the conference room, Li Zuoshu’s heart sank again. The man that took a seat across from him looked to be in his thirties, and he was dressed more like an unlicensed taxi driver than the biomedical firm CEO he claimed to be.
Boss Ling motioned to one of the men that flanked him, and the underling produced a pack of Double Happiness. Boss Ling passed a cigarette to Li Zuoshu and lit one himself. “You know what I’m proposing,” Boss Ling said, “so let’s get that off the table right away. I’m looking for a production facility to manufacture a modest quantity of ketamine.”
“I got the fax from your office,” Li Zuoshu said, “but like I told your secretary on the phone, we stopped making it four years ago. Everything is shut down. It’ll take us months to get up and running, and the most we can produce is about 300 kilograms.”
“But you still have the license to produce it, right? Take your time. What’s your hurry?”
Before any agreement could be reached, Boss Ling called the meeting to a close, led Li Zuoshu down to a waiting Audi, and took him to a seafood restaurant on the other side of the Fenhe River. Over Maotai and lobster, Li Zuoshu agreed enthusiastically to talk to the province. Boss Ling cautioned him: “It’s better if you take care of this yourself. This is a different era. You know how it is. The move for you is to take them the news that you turned a profit. That way they can’t try to horn in on it.”
Boss Ling flew out the same night, with plans to return in January of the next year.
Li Zuoshu returned to the plant and took a few of the line supervisors aside. He told them what he had in mind. They went to work.
Li Zuoshu had been with the firm since close to the beginning, only a few years after it had been opened as one of the 156 key projects of the first Five-Year Plan. He had arrived at the plant just as the Soviet advisors left, bundled onto an Ilyushin Il-12 bound for Khabarovsk or Novosibirk, then on to Moscow, where Khrushchev was torching the proud legacy of Stalin. Back then, the Taiyuan factory had turned out sulfa drugs, antibiotics like sulfamethoxazole and sulfathiazole, while its twin, Huabei Pharmaceutical in Shijiazhuang produced penicillin and streptomycin. There was no competition. That was the beauty of a centrally planned economy.
Even before the economic reforms of the ‘80s, things had started to change at Taiyuan Pharmaceutical. In 1978, when Comrade Deng was pondering ordering the People's Liberation Army to drive their tanks over the Vietnamese border, word came down from the top: start making ketamine. At first, it was only in small quantities. Chemists from Beijing and Shanghai had arrived to set up the equipment and train the staff. After that, most of the ketamine from Taiyuan went to the army, with the rest going to researchers and doctors at labs in Tianjin, Beijing, Fuzhou, and Shanghai. Apart from ketamine, there were still the antibiotics, but there wasn’t much money in antibiotics, and leaders and workers started to drift off to the private sector. When the government gave Taiyuan Pharmaceutical the go-ahead to sell their ketamine more widely, it was already too late.
“Go out on the open seas,” that was what they called it then, leaving your state firm, your iron rice bowl, and your company dormitory to brave the waves of the market economy. Li Zuoshu had advised his comrades to stay the course. Market economy or command economy, people still needed to buy medicine. The market economy wasn’t going to wipe out urinary tract infections and prescriptions for co-trimoxazole. But the best and brightest at Taiyuan Pharmaceutical made the jump. They went out on the open seas; they got rich. Some hadn’t gone far. They took what they had learned at their last job, moved down the road to the Taiyuan High-tech Park, and set up their own pharmaceutical companies.
By 1996, Taiyuan Pharmaceutical was in debt, its cadres had jumped ship, and Li Zuoshu found himself in charge of day-to-day operations. The Shanxi government hunted for a buyer, but nobody was in the market for a rundown, four decade old pharmaceutical plant in the Northwestern hinterland. The provincial government put together the money for a bailout. They didn’t expect to recoup the investment, but they didn’t welcome the prospect of putting five thousand workers and their families out on the street. A planned merger with Huabei Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Group was unsuccessful. Taiyuan Pharmaceutical was doomed.
When Boss Ling returned in January of 2002, everything was ready to make his order. After his tour of the plant, Boss Ling called over his assistant, who laid a Louis Vuitton duffle bag on Li Zuoshu’s desk. Inside the bag was 100,000 yuan. The two men shook hands. Boss Ling went back to his room at the Grand Hotel.
That afternoon, Li Zuoshu called in the head of the factory’s union, pressed 40,000 yuan into his hands. He told him, “It’s a month to Spring Festival. The workers have suffered. It’s been thirteen months since they got their salary. I want you to make sure they can celebrate the New Year.” He sent the remaining 60,000 yuan to the bank.
Boss Ling came back two days later to hammer out the agreement. Shortly before he flew out of Taiyuan, a wire transfer came through for forty million yuan.Within a month, his first ton of ketamine left the plant, and two additional tons had been manufactured by February.
Li Zuoshu was loyal. Maybe that was why Boss Ling had chosen him. He could have taken the money and run. But he didn’t. Thirteen months of wages were paid, the factory caught up with its pension payments, and there was money in the bank.
The day that the police showed up, Li Zuoshu was eating lunch at his desk. The plant canteen had the money to put meat on the menu again, and he had just put a hunk of steamed pork into his mouth. He saw the man with the camcorder first, so, at first, he thought it was a TV crew. Maybe word had spread about the factory turning its fortunes around, he thought. But it wasn’t long before he noticed a pair of men with semi-automatics flanking the group that followed the camera.
He was interrogated in a small but comfortable conference room at the Public Security Bureau headquarters, not too far from the Grand Hotel, where he had first met Boss Ling. He noticed the Cantonese accent of his interviewers. “Boss Ling?” they demanded. “Who the hell is that? It’s time to come clean with us. We know you were only working for the gang.”
“We didn’t make anything illegal,” Li Zuoshu said.
“Do you recognize this man?” one of the Cantonese cops asked, laying a grainy black-and-white photo on the table.
“Yes! That’s him! Boss Ling.”
“That’s a pseudonym. This is Cao Yongjiang. If you don’t want to share his execution date, you better cooperate. Leniency to those who confess, severity to those who resist.”
“I don’t know his real name.”
The cop started reading off a list: “Methamphetamine, one kilogram. Two automatic pistols. Sixteen rounds of high-powered ammunition. One million in Renminbi. Ten million Japanese yen.”
“We don’t make methamphetamine here,” Li Zuoshu said indignantly.
“That was what we found in Beijing. In Guangzhou, Cao Yongjiang’s warehouse contained just a hair less than two tons of ketamine. We intercepted it before it made its way into Hong Kong.”
“Oh,” Li Zuoshu said. “But… Okay. I see.”
Synthesis of ketamine is not an easy process. Taiyuan Pharmaceutical had access to precursor chemicals and industrial lab equipment, and even they balked at turning out a ton overnight. A guide posted to ketamine synthesis posted on Erowid describes it as “more difficult to synthesize” than other PCP derivatives, especially if some or all precursors need to be substituted or synthesized (Beagle, n.d.; and see Chambers et al., 2018 for a rundown on various methods of synthesizing ketamine). The low yield, combined with pitiful—compared to PCP and other analogues—potency of ketamine made it less attractive as a clandestine project.
Most ketamine consumed since its discovery by Parke, Davis & Co. in the 1950s has been diverted from legitimate sources (Copeland & Dillon, 2005). Pharmaceutical companies dumped tons of the stuff into markets with loose controls, and, until 1999, the drug was not scheduled in the United States, meaning it was easier to order the drug itself, rather than sourcing or synthesizing the precursors, and doing the synthesis.⁴⁸ U.S. law enforcement reported no evidence of clandestine ketamine production in the early 2000s (Lankenau, 2006).
In China, anyone with an entrepreneurial mindset, and access to precursor chemicals and equipment, could turn out methamphetamine with less investment and effort. But, similar to the American ketamine scheduling in 1999, stricter controls were placed on ketamine in China in 2004. Ketamine was placed in a category with drugs like certain benzodiazepines and barbiturates, meaning that it could still be sold, but only with a special permit (“关于开展氯胺酮专项检查工作的通知,” 2004). It was no longer as easy to divert it from legitimate sources. Necessity is the mother of invention: it was time to start synthesizing ketamine.
Jia Qin 贾沁, nicknamed the Ketamine Kid (K-fěn shàonián K粉少年), was among the first to try his hand at making ketamine at home.⁴⁹
He had always enjoyed chemistry, and after watching Scarface (1983) and reading online about Chinese ice barons,⁵⁰ he figured he could make some money selling ketamine. He spent his first two years of college sourcing chemicals 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, and it sounds like Jin Xin wasn’t much of a salesman, but it was enough to get them in trouble. The police caught up with the pair 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 Zhaohua, 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.)
Front of House
Interview with a ketamine dealer
You worked in a nightclub?
No. You know Lao Wang?⁵¹
I don’t know him.
He lived on the first floor of the place I was renting. He was a painter. Supposedly, he was, like, maybe forty-something—at the time, I mean. I don’t know how old he is now. He has to be almost sixty now. He was a drug addict. He went to get methadone at a clinic in Haizhu [in Guangzhou, Guangdong]. He was a sailor! I remember now. He got addicted to heroin. He kept telling us not to take drugs in there. You know the place I mean, right?
It doesn’t matter. He lived over there, too. But we had a friend that would come over. He had it. We used to have a projector that we hooked up to our computer and we could watch movies on a big screen. That was the first time I saw it. I thought it was heroin. I told Lao Wang about it. He was the one that told me that it was K powder.
Was that the first time you took it?
That was around that time.
What does that feel like?
It was like floating, like I was laying on my back in water.
Why did you take it again?
The guy I mentioned before, who used to come over here with it? I moved in with him. In Shenzhen. That’s when I started working at the spa. They liked my look, because my mother is Zhuang. I look like a foreign girl.
What year was this?
I’m talking twenty years ago but [unintelligible] or around then. That [unintelligible] was later [unintelligible]. I took it sometimes but not that often. But I had a lot of money, back then. I used to take it at parties. When I came back here, I met Huzi. That’s when we started selling it.
Who did you sell it to?
We sold it to guys that worked in nightclubs and KTVs. I gave it [unintelligible] and sold it at the spa, without me having to touch it.
Did you still take it yourself?
How much did you sell in a week?
It’s hard to say.
Was it powder?
Not at first. You have to [unintelligible] in the water, then dry it out. That’s how we did it at first.
You mean it came in vials?
Yeah. Then we bought it in bags of powder that had 50 grams, I think. It looks like a bag of MSG. The crystals look the same as MSG.
How much did you make in a week?
It depends. At first, we made lots of money because nobody had it. When we got bags, we had to divide them. We made about 2000 [yuan, approximately $250 USD at the time] a week, but sometimes we made 5000 or 6000. I did the deliveries and Huzi kept all the money. You have to know what the market is. Sometimes the people we bought it from put the price up, and sometimes they couldn’t even get it. There was a discount for buying more, but that meant that there was more around, so we couldn’t sell it for as much.
Why did you stop selling it? You went to jail, right?
No. It was reform through labor [láojiào 劳教, reform through labor]. It was easy. That was in Huzi’s hometown, in Guangxi. He was buying white powder [báifěn 白粉]. He got arrested. I never saw him after that. He got hepatitis in prison.
Why do Chinese people like ketamine?
I don’t know. Africans brought it to Guangzhou first. I don’t know. Does anyone like it more than anyone else?
An anecdote about selling small amounts of ketamine from a woman giving me a massage in Xi’an
There were not really drug dealers. If you want to buy white powder, you have to know certain people. At certain places, you can do promotion, and walk around trying to sell to people. But mostly the bartender or staff can sell it. Everyone knows each other. Usually, at those places, someone from the black society has it as their territory or they are invested in it, so they can deal with the police or anybody that starts trouble. They provide it to whoever. Actually, most people just sell it to each other. If I buy some, I might give you some. You don’t have to pay me, but the next time, if you ask me for some, I might tell you how much to pay, or if I get some from you, I won’t worry about paying for it. It’s like that.
True Stories from the Ketamine Decade
If I hadn’t been there at the time, I wouldn’t have known any of this was going on. The real history of ketamine in China was recorded in passworded albums on QZone, Sina blogs long-since scrubbed from the internet, pictures of ketamine arranged in the shape of a heart, low-res selfies by fēizhǔliú 非主流 youths doing bumps in KTV rooms, Weibo guides to maximizing the ketamine high… The public security literature, legal documents, and dry histories of drug suppression turned out to be more durable.
It is the subalterns, Michael Dutton argues, that are least likely to be captured in accounts of the age. They “become visible only as names on a file or actions taken down in police records” (Dutton, 1998, 10).
A not so true story: drug slave
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.⁵² 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.
Public security literature is one of the few places that the dissection of the antisocial is permitted in China. These rewritings of actual case files rarely end on a heavy handed political or moral lesson, but that’s okay because they always end with the PSB or another apparatus of state security nailing the culprit and restoring social order. If you flip through the sprawling Essential Library of Chinese Public Security Literature, 1949-2019 中国公安文学精品文库, 1949-2019, you will find more mundane tales of embezzlement and vandalism, but also bloodcurdling descriptions of robbery, murder, and rape. Classics from Chinese Drug Squad Case Files 中国禁毒大案要案经典案例 (中国禁毒报编辑部, 2017) is a collection of public security literature dealing with manufacture, trafficking, and sale of controlled substances.
In that collection, there are a few stories that deal with ketamine, like “Two Minor Clues Lead to the Bust of Two Drug Production and Trafficking Gangs” "小线索牵出两大制贩毒团伙" by Hu Jun 胡军 and Gao Liang 高亮, and “A Restaurateur Risks Everything for a Couple Bucks” "为筹资饭店老板以身试法" by Ning Jingdu 宁荆督. These stories don’t go into much detail on what ketamine is, and sometimes only refer to it by slang terms. Another writer in that collection,⁵³ Li Rongjun 李荣军 has written a more thorough and detailed examination of a ketamine case: "Operation Hurricane" "寒夜飓风" (2008).⁵⁴
The story opens with a group of PSB drug squad officers in Binyang County in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Guangxi shares a border with Vietnam, 200 kilometers southwest of Nanning, and drugs frequently move from the border regions to cities in the region, before being shipped to larger centers. The Binyang County PSB have set up a roadblock, looking for drugs transiting between Nanning and Liuzhou. The search of a truck turns up something interesting:
In the black plastic bag was a smaller bag, containing what looked like a few hundred grams salt but upon closer examination was revealed to have a yellowish tinge. When the bag was opened, an acrid smell stung the nostrils of the officers.
"This is K powder!" one of the officers shrieked. The chemical name of K powder is ketamine. It's used as a general anesthetic for humans and animals. If you take it twice, you'll probably end up hooked, and a third time is guaranteed to turn you into an addict. K is a crystalline powder, water soluble, easily blended with soft drinks or liquor. Some criminal elements have been known to sell it in discos, dance halls, and other entertainment venues, along with methamphetamine and ecstasy. It is not unknown for them to drug the drinks of young women for the purposes of violating them. For that reason, K has become known as the "date rape drug." It is a highly addictive drug. After taking it, users experience dissociation between consciousness and sensory perception, and powerful hallucinations, which mimics the symptoms of schizophrenia. Other symptoms include auditory hallucinations, difficulties in locomotion, depression. Users can become dangerous and unpredictable. It can also seriously damage memory and intelligence. In the past several years, K has slowly replaced methamphetamine and ecstasy. In the nightclubs and bars of Guangxi, it had become a new menace. That was the first time that the Binyang County Public Security Bureau drug squad had managed to seize a major shipment.
The cops rushed to contact the PSB anti-drug detachment in Liuzhou, hoping to snare the dealers in a trap, but it was too late. The criminals had gotten word of the shipment being intercepted. Nobody came forward to accept the shipment.
The roadside stop was a major victory for the Binyang County PSB, and it restored their morale. They immediately went back to work, setting up another roadblock. Not long after they got in place, a taxi came down the highway toward them. The driver hit the gas and then abruptly braked, as if he had considered breaking through the blockade before finally thinking better of it. Lu Lizhi sensed something was strange, so he ordered his men to surround the taxi. The driver cracked the window and gave them a sickly smile. Three young men were seated behind him. They looked nervous. One of them was even shaking. The cops ordered them to get out of the car. A cursory search quickly turned up a black plastic bag containing 302 grams of ketamine. The driver and the three passengers were hauled in for interrogation.
Lu Lizhi focused his questioning on Zhang Xiaozhang, one of the three young men in the back of the car. He learned that the suspects were all from Liuzhou and had met online. The men were aware of a man going by the nickname "Little Wang" in Binyang County, who was known to sell ketamine at 20 yuan a gram. When they were stopped, they were headed back to Liuzhou after buying drugs from "Little Wang," who had met them in his car on a street corner in the county town.
"Little Wang"—that was a name that all of the local PSB men had heard before! But what really surprised Lu Lizhi was the price. In the bars and nightclubs of Nanning and Liuzhou, K rarely went for less than 50 per gram, and it was normal for it to go as high as 80 per gram. If Zhang Xiaozhang was buying K for 20 a gram in Binyang, judging by the price and purity, it had to mean that "Little Wang" was close to the source of the drug. Nobody was going to sell drugs at a loss, so "Little Wang" had to be getting his K for even cheaper than 20 a gram. Lu Lizhi immediately began to suspect that Binyang County might be home to a den of drug cooks who seemed to have connections to larger centers. Lu Lizhi rushed off to report the theory to his commanding officers, Lan Changning, and Cheng Guangjing.
Binyang County is located in the center of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, and it was the site of the Battle of Kunlun Pass during the War of Resistance against Japan. It serves as a vital link to Nanning, and it was traditionally a transit point in the heroin business. Binyang was near the epicenter of Guangxi's drug disaster, and anti-drug public security work there was never easy, but that was the first Lu Lizhi had heard of drug manufacturing and large-scale trafficking taking place there. When Lu Lizhi delivered his report to the two bureau heads—Lan Changning, and Cheng Guangjing—their faces immediately took on a somber expression. They agreed with his assessment of the situation, and they told him to take any steps necessary to root out the drug ring. They told Lu Lizhi to liaise with his drug squad counterparts in the Guangxi province-level PSB and the Nanning City PSB. Lan Changning told Lu Lizhi it was crucial to move news of the drug ring up the chain of command in order to warn all levels of the public security apparatus and receive the necessary support.
When Commissioner Yin Yanhui of the Guangxi PSB heard the news, he was sure that there must be a manufacturing and trafficking operation in Binyang. Over the past several years, drug laboratories of varying sizes had been uncovered in Liuzhou, Wuzhou, Baise, and several other cities in Guangxi, but all of them were manufacturing or processing methamphetamine. The Binyang case was the first time that there was suspected ketamine manufacturing. Commissioner Yin ordered Superintendent Ma Weidong to throw all available resources at the Binyang drug ring, ordered the synthetic drug investigation team to start looking into it, and had the Superintendent personally assemble a task force to take to Binyang, taking any steps necessary to identify the man known as "Little Wang" and completely destroy his operation. That was the beginning of "Operation Hurricane."
In Binyang, Ma Weidong and his team met with Lan Changning, Cheng Guangjing, and Lu Lizhi. It was November 6th, 2007, so their investigation was given the case number "11.06." “What do we know about this ‘Little Wang’?” Ma Weidong asked.
"From the interrogation of Zhang Xiaozhang," Lu Lizhi said, "we know he's a fairly young man, short, thin, keeps his hair clipped short, thick eyebrows..."
"Do we know how he got to the meeting with the buyers?"
"He was driving. Suzuki Swift, light blue. It looked new. We don't have a plate number on it."
"Anyone else with him?"
"A woman in her twenties. Could be his girlfriend."
"Let's start with that car,” Ma Weidong said. “How long has that model been out? Not long, right? There can't be many of them in Binyang. People would remember seeing a car like that. Let's find that car." There were nods around the table.The police close in on “Little Wang,” who turns out to be a local boy named Zeng Yujie 曾玉杰. As they prepare to launch a sting operation, we cut to the ketamine dealer’s lair.
After Zeng Yujie stashed his car, his neighbor came around to ask him about its absence, "A-Jie, where’d that car of yours go? Are you thinking of getting something new already? That was a hell of a car!"
"It's all right," Zeng Yujie said, "you know, not bad..." He tried to play it off, but his heart was hammering in his chest.
"You know,” the neighbor said, “I see you going around in a brand new car, doing all these renovations on your place, and I can’t help but wonder what kind of business you’re in..." A few people that were hanging around on the street nearby perked up. The people on the street were curious, but nobody had had the nerve to ask Zeng Yujie directly. Zeng Yujie hadn't even gone to high school, and, except for going out to gamble, he spent most of his time lazing around at home, but he'd clearly gotten rich over the past year. It wasn't only the car. The renovations were not minor; he had torn down most of the old house and put up a luxurious three story home in its place. He entertained friends and relatives most nights of the week, always in the best restaurants in town. He was spending money like crazy. The neighbors had noticed his nightly trips with his girlfriend, but they had no hints as to what he was doing.
"Oh," Zeng Yujie said coolly, "I didn't want to spread it around, but I won a bit of money playing the lottery."
"You got any special methods for hitting the jackpot?"
"Come on," Zeng Yujie said, "it's all random. There's no method to it." He led his girlfriend away. A few of the neighbors shook their heads.
Zeng Yujie thought back to April of 2007, when he had driven back with a load of equipment for processing drugs. He had felt like a scared rabbit, surrounded by wolves.
That day on the highway, he had been paranoid about cars following him. When he noticed one car in particular that seemed to be tailing him, he had started shaking. He decided to pull into a rest area. The car he suspected of tailing him whistled by down the road. He started jotting down plate numbers. Each night, when he stopped at a hotel, he would go over the day's plate numbers, comparing them with previous days to check if any of them repeated. When none of the plates seemed to repeat, he decided he had been overly cautious. But it was best, he thought, to be overly cautious, rather than foolhardy.
In March of 2007, while chatting on Bingyang Forum, he got to know a guy originally from Hubei, who called himself "Brother Guo." When Zeng Yujie complained to him about being broke, "Brother Guo" was dismissive: if you want to make some money, he told Zeng Yuejie, it's easy—make some ketamine! Zeng Yujie hadn't been enthusiastic about taking part in an illegal scheme, but "Brother Guo" quoted a familiar line, "Nobody makes a fortune without breaking the rules. Where do you think all those bureaucrats and businessmen driving around in fancy cars made their money? That's not clean money. As long as you're careful, you can make money with this. All those kids snorting K are a huge market. It's easy to make the stuff, too. A chance like this is not going to come along soon. Get into it now or you'll live to regret it."
Zeng Yujie was well aware of the popularity of K. He knew that a gram of ketamine was selling for about fifty or sixty yuan, and most of that gram was adulterants and filler. Most of the people taking it didn't even know that it was considered a drug. He finally decided to contact "Brother Guo," then told his parents he was going out of town to join an entrepreneur seminar. He gave "Brother Gao" the money up front, learned the method, and was given the necessary equipment.The story attempts to give some context to Zeng Yujie’s actions, and maybe spin a bit of a moral tale. Zeng was an only child. His parents were diligent and hardworking, and he was a dropout that never managed to get his life in order. He had worked at straight jobs before, but they never lasted very long. Zeng was not a bad person. He wanted money, and he was simply too lazy and uncommitted to work for it the legal way.
When he returned to Binyang, he decided that he couldn't set up his lab at home. He rented a place on the other side of the county. He set up his equipment there. He tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. When it was time to get a bank account, he used his girlfriend's name. When he told Tan Xueqing that he was planning to make drugs, she was startled. Tan Xueqing lived in Xinqiao Town, known for being infested with close to a thousand drug users. Tan Xueqing had grown up surrounded by drugs. She knew how they could reduce a person to ruin. And it suddenly threatened her own boyfriend. Tan Xueqing and Zeng Yujie had met online in May of 2006, when Tan Xueqing was only seventeen. They got along. He spoiled her. He was easygoing. He had a certain maturity that she appreciated. Even though Zeng Yujie was constantly broke, she had faith that he would make something of himself. She never expected that he would do that by becoming a drug cook. He took pains to explain to her that ketamine was far different from the heroin that was epidemic in her part of the county. He claimed it wasn't really a drug. He told her that it was simply an innocent source of pleasure for the type of people that went to bars and nightclubs. Tan Xueqing was young, but she wasn't naive. She didn't want to stand in his way, though. She acted as his assistant, transporting drugs and materials, and sometimes helping him to process the precursor chemicals. Zeng Yujie also had a former classmate helping him out. When the three of them produced the first batch and realized that they had succeeded, the white powder seemed to transform into mounds of gold in front of their very eyes.The first time Zeng Yujie got online to advertise the drugs, he felt like he was going to pass out. He had tried to be so inconspicuous before, and posting an advertisement was a serious risk. That night, he had a dream that he was meeting a customer on a back road, and when he went to pass the man a package of ketamine, the customer pulled out a shiny black pistol... The next morning, Zeng Yujie wakes up to find someone with the nickname "Nana" "娜娜" is interested in buying. She deposits 6000 RMB in Tan Xueqing's account and he meets her in a cafe in the county town. Zeng Yujie and "Nana" never meet in person again, but they negotiate an ongoing relationship, with "Nana" depositing money into the account and Zeng shipping the drugs to Nanning. After that, Zeng becomes increasingly brazen, running an online drug business with customers in Hechi, Guigang, Nanning, Guilin, Liuzhou, and beyond. The bulk of the novella is a fairly dry drug war procedural, explaining the schemes of the police to root out drug dens, diagramming the network of drug dealers and manufacturers involved in a cross-border ketamine trade, and extensive notes on amounts of precursors and drugs seized. As always, since these are drawn from case files, we know the outcome: everyone goes to prison, with Zeng Yujie getting fifteen years.
“It's not something that normal people should pursue”
The public security literature focuses on legal aspects of the drug, detailing actual cases, and the other writing in public security-focused magazines parrots over-the-top drug enforcement policy lines about the evils of synthetic drugs. Much of the popular coverage of ketamine is equally legalistic and bombastic, but it often focuses on average individual users, rather than dealers, manufacturers, and sellers.
In an interview with a KTV girl, we get a seemingly genuine remembrance of past illicit experimentation and addiction. Alcohol and drugs are workplace hazards for KTV girls (KTV zuòtái xiǎojie KTV坐台小姐, or just K-jiě K姐), who work as private hostesses in karaoke rooms.⁵⁵ Forced drinking, genuine and performative, is part of the job (Yi et al., 2012). Inconsistent nighttime and early morning work hours make the use of a go pill/no-go pill attractive or necessary.⁵⁶
The KTV girl being interviewed is one of two daughters, raised by her grandmother after her parents divorced.
Her older sister went to university, but she had less drive:
I graduated from junior middle school in 1998 and got a job on the line at an electronics factory. I quit after a couple months. I was just fooling around after that, hanging out at clubs and dance halls. I was spending so much on going out that I ran through all my savings. I went to my father and my grandma for help, but they couldn't give me much. After that, I was borrowing money from friends, stealing money, whatever it took. Eventually, a girl I knew took me aside and told me I might as well start working as a KTV girl. I could make a bit of money, she said, and I'd be doing basically the same thing as I was doing back then. I started working at a KTV in August of 1998.Work in the KTV thrusts her deeper into a world of promiscuity, drunkenness, and gambling. Drugs are lurking around the corner:
The first thing I came across was heroin. That would've been around the start of 1999. Shortly after that, some friends turned me on to ecstasy and K. They told me it was a good time, and I didn't even know it was against the law. I was getting into the scene. I started shooting heroin. At first, I'd boot up once a day. My tolerance was getting crazy. I was shooting more and more. I was starting to go broke.
Around 2004, I started taking meth. Someone had told me that it wasn't addictive. I wanted to use it to replace heroin. I tried reducing the dose on the heroin, but after three or four months, I gave up. You can't replace heroin with meth. I still take it—and ecstasy and K, too—but not everyday. The only thing I have to take everyday is heroin.
If ecstasy, K, and meth was all I took, it wouldn't be a problem. I was getting that stuff from customers most of the time. But heroin was the thing that put me in real financial trouble. I had to go back to my father and grandma to beg for whatever they could give me.It’s the heroin that’s the problem! Her experiences with other drugs ring more true after we learn that they aren’t a big deal.
She details her experiences with methamphetamine and ketamine:
When you go to pick up, it's always from a friend. A bag of meth is usually about ten grams, and it'll cost about 500 yuan [about $70 USD].⁵⁷ Right after you take it, there's a rush. I sometimes pass out. But usually, my mouth is dry but I can't stop talking, and my heart is racing. I can go three days without sleeping. 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.The story closes on a somber note, without much of a moral lesson:
I hate my family, especially my mother. My parents wanted a son. They had to break the family planning regulations to have me. I wasn't a boy, so they didn't really bother spending too much time on me. I was always looking for a sense of security, which is how I ended up with my boyfriend, and doing the work that I do. Whatever my mother felt about me, I feel like my sister abandoned me. She's just as self-centered as my mother. After everything I've been through, I still tried to reach out to them. I wrote my mother and sister a letter. But they still haven't written back. ("KTV坐台小姐吸毒经历过程," 2012.)A 2017 interview with a ketamine user actually makes it sound kind of cool:
Who gave you ketamine? 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.
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, 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—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. 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 very brief discussion of literary and filmic representations of illicit drug and addiction, and a justification of self-indulgent dope writing
A writer resurrecting the psychedelic era of the late 1960s in the United States has an inexhaustible supply of academic writing, journalistic accounts, fiction, comic books, poetry, film, and music. If I decided to write a text about, say, PCP in the American South and Midwest, then, again, I could draw on reams of writing on the topic, then delve into the subcultural art on the topic. But writing a text about ketamine use in China in the 2000s is far more difficult because many of those resources do not exist. Beyond public security literature and drug propaganda blogs, there’s not much writing on ketamine in Chinese, and it doesn’t pop up in the popular culture of the time.⁵⁸
The reasons for that are manifold: it was a drug mostly used by a marginalized subculture, much of the writing and other media on the topic were not durable but likely stored on bulletin boards and blog sites, and, most importantly, drug use is taboo.
Mention drugs to someone in China that doesn’t hang out in sleazy KTVs, especially if they came of age before the 1990s, and they'll ask if you’re talking about opium (yāpiàn 鸦片, or maybe dàyān 大烟). Opium might as well refer to all illicit drugs.⁵⁹ It is a symbol of foreign imperialism. 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. Chinese nationalism is often said to start with Lin Zexu 林则徐, disappointed by his lack of a response from Queen Victoria following his request to end the opium trade, mixing tons of the seized drug with lime and dumping it into the ocean.
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.)Through the 1990s and 2000s, the nationalist anti-drug message was officially altered beyond recognition. Globalization and liberalization were crucial to building the nation. The “ideological ambiguity and complexity” (Gong, 2016, p. 127) of postsocialist China required an emphasis on a moralistic or medical rather than nationalistic anti-drug message.
Depictions of drug use in post-'79 Chinese films and fiction drop the nationalism but are still heavy-handed. Drug addiction is "morally transgressive and something to be feared” (Ramsay, 2016, p. 85). Zhang Yang's 张扬 Quitting 昨天 (2001) is based on the life of Jia Hongsheng 贾宏声, an actor from a family of actors, who got hooked on heroin in the 1990s. In the film, Jia's parents arrive in Beijing and help their son to stay clean for a while, but he eventually relapses, and then gets sent to a forced rehabilitation facility. Zhou Xun 周迅 stars as Beibei 蓓蓓, a heroin addict and dealer, in the Dong Zhiqiang-directed 董志强 War of Two 两个人的战争 (2005). That film ends with a gruesome murder suicide, in which she destroys a stash of drugs and her dealer ex-boyfriend. (Ramsay, 2016 analyzes both films.)
In literature, too, except for a few 1990s vintage examples (I’m thinking of City Tank 城市战车 (1997) by Qiu Huadong 邱华栋, which has its protagonist, Zhu Wen 朱文, a painter from Wuhan, who leaves behind his girlfriend for a new life in Beijing, smoking marijuana occasionally), it is mostly about addiction. If you’re too honest, you’ll end up like Wang Shuo 王朔, 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). So, there’s Coco's boyfriend Tiantian in Wei Hui's 卫慧 Shanghai Baby 上海宝贝 (1999), who can’t give up dope. 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.)Red Prescription 红处方 by Bi Shumin 毕淑敏 (1997) is 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).
And, I'll insert here something else:
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, quoted in Gong, 2016.)But there are no Chinese literary references to ketamine, though. Perhaps Chinese writers simply don’t have much experience with anyone as scummy as ketamine users, or perhaps they don’t think it’s worthwhile to record them in novels or films. Maybe ketamine isn’t cool or transgressive enough—it seems like the common refrain from recovered users in anti-drug materials is: “I didn’t even know they were drugs!”
If we broaden our survey out to expatriate writing from China, drugs certainly make an appearance—foreigners sorting through China’s dirty laundry, turning up a few baggies and pills… And so, if we look through those accounts for ketamine: Unsavory Elements, edited by Tom Carter, has a writer referencing “ketamine, and pills nestled like candies in a brass bowl” (Gordon, 2013, p.169), David O’Dell’s Inseparable (2014) features rock stars snorting K while slumming it in Beijing clubs, and Zachary Mexico’s China Underground (2009) is peppered with references to the drug. There are, however, no expatriate memoirs mentioning personal use.⁶⁰
The idea of a foreign writer not outright condemning the use of drugs in China will annoy and maybe enrage certain readers of this text.
Without sharing my own experience with ketamine, this would be a much shorter text, mostly digesting public security literature, academic writing, and reports of seizures and busts. I have held off long enough, sparing the reader my own self-indulgent account, but it’s time we get into it.
Before I tell my own sick tales about ketamine abuse, I want to explain how I wired my brain for dissociatives.
The active ingredient in Robitussin is dextromethorphan hydrobromide (DXM or sometimes DEX). It’s the antitussive that replaced more problematic drugs like codeine, dihydrocodeine, and morphine, since like those drugs, dextromethorphan is a σ1 receptor agonist.⁶¹ DXM also works in some of the same ways that ketamine and PCP do: it’s an NMDA receptor antagonist, high doses induce a dissociative state, and if you take enough, you will hallucinate.⁶²
One bottle of cough syrup usually contains about 120 mg of DXM HBr, which is enough for a threshold or light dose.⁶³ If you want to blast off, you would need to drink at least two bottles, but by that time, your stomach is full of the expectorant guaifenesin, thickening agents, industrial dyes, sweeteners, menthol, and polyethylene glycol. There is a good chance that you will vomit; as a precaution against—intentional or unintentional—overdose, it’s been formulated to cause vomiting.
Before I ever tasted liquor or smoked dope, I littered the space underneath my bed with tiny, brown bottles of Robitussin. I spent many teenage nights chugging dextromethorphan cough syrup, chatting on IRC, 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.⁶⁴ I tried those, and graduated to the tryptamines and phenethylamines being traded on IRC channels, then eventually returned to DXM. It felt 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 powerful hallucinogen like LSD or psilocybin, and you can expect to experience hours of violent psychospiritual disintegration, but too much DXM, and the "dumb and numb" (Linn et al., 2014) effects usually kick in, and it’s only going to last a couple hours.
The DXM experience is described by four plateaus. The first plateau is not much more than mild euphoria and introspection; the second is a sleepy stone, where you begin to feel the dissociative effects, the connection between body and mind growing weak, and it becomes difficult to walk around; the third, the onset of closed-eye visuals, and a feeling of dissociation, like the one described earlier with the PCP and ketamine experiences; and the fourth, disconnection with the outside world, similar to high doses of ketamine, which have been described as entering a “K-hole” (Curran & Monaghan, 2002; Muetzelfeldt et al., 2008), "time bends, space distorts, and intense dreamlike hallucinations follow" (Singer, 2006, p. 99). I rarely took enough to experience much beyond the first or second plateaus, but I had wired my brain for dissociatives.
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. 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. I dropped out of school and worked in a slaughterhouse. I quit the job at the slaughterhouse and worked for an irrigation company, digging holes for valve boxes. I went back to school, but I didn’t feel right. I drove ten hours in a snowstorm one night, wrecked my car in Winnipeg, and drove home. I wanted to escape. The downward spiral ended with me flying off to China. I was going to go to school there.
I’m hazy now on the details, but the first time I did a line of ketamine, it was probably in the Nanjing bar district of 1912. It would have been the summer of 2006. I didn’t go there often. I spent most of my time drinking at the beer shop across from the Nanjing University gates. Karl took me to 1912. We were sitting at a table outside, under a string of green lanterns advertising Carlsberg. I couldn’t tell you who provided the ketamine. It was snorted off a cellphone, set on the table between plates of grilled oysters and barbecued lamb. I didn’t ask what I was snorting, and assumed it was methamphetamine or cocaine.⁶⁵ From the warm, spacey feeling that swept over me, I figured that the powder had either been an opiate or a dissociative. After another line, when my head started to float off my body, I knew it must be ketamine.
I had heard of ketamine before. I think I had even read Lilly’s book. But I never expected to come across it in Nanjing. I was naive.
The second time I took ketamine, I knew what I was doing.
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. I had been there before and would return many times. 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. That night is carved into my memory, but it’s impossible to describe. I was dancing to the thudding Eurobeat that every club in China played back then. I remember feeling my head float up, hovering above my body and the dancefloor like a balloon. I remember distinctly watching my arms move, but not feeling as if I was moving them. Time slowed down. There was a rush of euphoria.
When I left the club, my legs were still fucked up. I couldn’t walk. I ran all the way home.
Northern Jiangsu, 2006
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. 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.
I initiated friends into the experience. I rarely took excessive dosages, but some of my friends indulged too heavily. A guy I knew woke up with his half his face paralyzed. Another guy passed out on a road and was using a speedbump as a pillow. I didn't give him the ketamine, and heavy drinking was part of both situations, but I saw the potential for trouble. They could handle themselves, but I didn’t want to cause an international incident if one of them got arrested with a baggie in his pocket. I wanted to protect my dealer. He was an amateur, himself, and I knew who he was buying from, but I preferred to stay out of the big leagues.
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. He was only a couple years younger than me, but I realize now that would put him in his late teens. It seemed normal at the time. We would zone out in his bedroom, smoking cigarettes, and looking at shit on the internet. It seemed normal.
Sometimes I took ketamine alone. 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.
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.
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.
* *** ******* ***** * **** * **** **** ***** ** *** ********* ******* **** ** 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.
The last time I took ketamine was outside Castle Bar in Nanjing. It was over a decade ago. I had already given up on my experiments with the drug. I took it just to be social.
The End of the Line
Anecdotes, sewage, and seizures
Guangzhou and the other cities in South China had been hotbeds of ketamine use, but by the end of 2013, when I was living in Guangzhou, ketamine was scarce. It still made occasional appearances, I saw it around—snorted by two sculptors during a screening of Beetlejuice (1988) at an art space in Tianhe, offered for sale by a drug dealer whose apartment me and some friends crashed at after hanging out at Catwalk in Yuexiu, and further afield, 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.
We can look at the sewage and the seizures again.
A 2014 study of Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Shanghai’s water treatment plants, searching for drugs and their metabolites, discovered a sharp decline in ketamine use, with significant prevalence only in Guangzhou and Shenzhen (Khan et al., 2014). An even wider study of eighteen cities decided ketamine use was likely on the downswing (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.” The Golden Triangle was identified as the major source, or at least the transit point of most ketamine (“Narcotics production in China drastically abates in 2018: report,” 2019).⁶⁶ With major busts of loads of ketamine going from India to Hong Kong, or on to the Mainland through the Golden Triangle, it appears that not as much was being made or consumed in China.
Attempting an explanation (I): Boshe and the Lost Decade/Golden Age
Local PSB and drug enforcement authorities were aware of what was happening with ketamine. It must have worried them that, unlike heroin, it wasn’t a drug confined to the borderlands, and to sex workers and nightlife venue workers. Methamphetamine was popular, but it skewed older; methamphetamine popped up as tablets, which were easier to pass off as ecstasy or something harmless, but there was a possible future where use of the drug was confined to truck drivers, factory workers, and homosexuals.
Seizures of ketamine went up and stayed there (Zhang & Chin, 2016). Synthetic drugs became a priority ("Chinese police report more seizures of party drugs," 2007). The Chinese government's Annual Report on Drug Control shows that authorities were seizing more ketamine than heroin in the middle of the 2000s.
Since most ketamine was diverted from legitimate use, it was easier to put a kink in the hose. Stricter controls were placed on ketamine in China in 2004, and it could only be sold with a special permit (“关于开展氯胺酮专项检查工作的通知,” 2004). Efforts to smash production facilities and distribution networks were ramped up (Tiezzi, 2014). Any labs that could bypass strict controls on chemicals and gather enough precursor chemicals to turn out quantities of methamphetamine were systematically raided (see Precursors and Chemicals Frequently Used in the Illicit Manufacture of Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, 2018 for more on precursors and attempts to control them). Clandestine labs fell, one by one, at least 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).
In Boshe, tons of methamphetamine and ketamine were being cranked out (Hignett, 2019; 马世鹏, 2016) for years, all under the direction of Cai Dongjia 蔡东家, a local clan patriarch who had become Party secretary of Boshe and representative of Shanwei Municipal People's Congress (Silverstone et al., 2018). The area was a hotbed of methamphetamine production and a transit point for Golden Triangle drugs moving down to Hong Kong (Silverstone et al., 2018). Close to a third of Boshe residents were involved in the drug trade. Cai Dongjia had used clan allegiances and the money earned through trafficking to win local elections, then used that power to ensure that nobody paid too much attention to the truckloads of precursor chemicals going into the village, and the truckloads of synthetic drugs leaving (Tao, 2019).
When local and provincial authorities finally raided Boshe in 2013, they turned up tons of methamphetamine, precursor chemicals, guns, and ketamine (Silverstone et al., 2018). Enforcement officials estimated that 60% of methamphetamine in Hong Kong was produced in Boshe or the surrounding area, and that it accounted for a third of the methamphetamine sold in the Mainland. It was also producing more illicit ketamine than anywhere else in the country, based on the amounts seized, which totalled more than most year’s total seizures.
The lawlessness of Boshe, where citizens living in palatial homes had armed themselves with Norinco Type 56 AK-47 clones and openly manufactured drugs, recalled the situation in Pingyuan in Southwest Yunnan in the 1990s. A Hui Muslim clan taking advantage of the Sino-Vietnam conflicts had stolen or otherwise diverted large quantities of small arms, rocket-propelled grenades, and land mines, which were being marketed to Hong Kong and foreign buyers, as well as being used to protect a heroin smuggling operation. When the Yunnan People’s Armed Police broke up the operation in 1992, they took home 896 kg of heroin and enough automatic weapons and explosives to attempt another assault on the Vietnamese border (Lo, 2016).
Boshe, though, differed from Pingyuan in crucial ways. On the isolated borderlands of Yunnan, the Hui minority had been routinely persecuted in political campaigns over the years, and had established a nearly autonomous village-state, financed by heroin and guns, where business thrived and commodities were freely bought and sold (Zhou, 1999). The situation in Boshe involved a “red-black nexus” (Silverstone et al., 2018 is where I first came across this term), meaning collaboration and collusion between organized crime groups (the “black”) and Communist Party officials (“red”) (Holmes, 2020), with some individuals, like Cai Dongjia, having membership in both organizations.
The idea of the Boshe clampdown as the death knell for ketamine, as shaky as that thesis is, is not because of the seizure of large quantities of ketamine and precursors, but because it signalled a change in how organizations like Cai Dongjia’s clan would be allowed to conduct business.
The period where Cai Dongjia was ascendant neatly parallels a “golden age” or “lost decade” in Chinese society, which covers 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) (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”).
He had two of the girls bring in a magnum of champagne, a little silver tray with slim white lines of powder that might have been coke but in all likelihood was ketamine, and pills nestled like candies in a brass bowl. At one point, I remember looking around at the girls, the men, the drugs, and the money, and wondering how long this utopia could last: the Chinese dream, in its second, prodigal generation. (Gordon, 2013, p. 169.)This was Hu-Wen China at its zenith, long before most of us heard about Xi Jinping after his "well fed foreigners" remark in Mexico in 2009. 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).
At that point, two decades or so on from Reform and Opening, the logic of capitalism set loose, there was no way for the state to keep a handle on what was going on, so the Party, in some locations, saw the possibility of delegating authority to a local elite that could practice a ”traditional form of domination” (Fabre, 2002). The local elite gained “economic power from the monopoly of licit and illicit profiteering,” and legitimacy from its integration into the government, as well as delivering income and services back to “the community or group that it belongs to” (Fabre, 2002). The policy of the Hu-Wen years was decentralization, sending power down the ladder, or out to regional governments, which allowed organized crime groups and Party officials to gain power and wealth through the red-black nexus.
The golden age or 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).
This golden age or lost decade, whatever it was came to an abrupt end shortly after Xi Jinping came to power. It was time to recentralize Party power and root out the red-black nexus, whether represented by Cai Dongjia, or Bo Xilai 薄熙来, who was promoting Communist Party anthems in Chongqing, while also collaborating with local organized crime bosses. Since 2012, Xi Jinping has made organized crime a key target of law enforcement (Holmes, 2014; Holmes, 2020).
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 taking a bite out of the corruption rife during the golden age, combined with reducing the power of organized crime, and their ability to collaborate with each other—it goes a long ways to explaining why ketamine and other synthetic drugs have become far more scarce, and one of the reasons why the ketamine decade came to a close.
Attempting an explanation (II): Changing demographics
In the 1990s and 2000s, when ketamine was being passed across from Hong Kong to the PRD to the YRD, and all up and down the coasts, the average migrant was young and far from home. With the financial crisis hitting the PRD and YRD hard (Ohm & Liefner, 2011), manufacturing began to move inland in the 2010s as consumer markets were developed, logistics networks stretched into the hinterland, and local governments built up new urban centers (Pomfret, 2010).
The average migrant worker was in their 30s in 2008, with women tending to be younger, and the average age is now over 40 (China Labor Bulletin, 2019).⁶⁷ They are also less likely to be found in Shenzhen or Wenzhou. The financial crisis of 2008 drove workers inland from the coasts (李梅 & 高明国, 2009). Since the 2010s, the proportion of migrant workers going to the PRD and YRD had begun to fall, with more migrants working within their own province (China Labor Bulletin, 2019; Fan, 2018; Van Marrewijk, 2019). By 2018, 74% of all migrant workers were employed in their home province, 40% of those in their own region, leaving a mere 26% to seek jobs beyond provincial borders (China Labor Bulletin, 2019).⁶⁸
The social upheaval of the 1990s and 2010s, where millions rushed to the coasts, has come to an end. The hard-drinking, free loving, footloose and fancy free migrant has returned to the hinterland, still working at a factory or in a food shop, but probably popping methamphetamine tablets rather than seeking to float away on ketamine.
Attempting an explanation (III): The drug war was a (partial )success
In 2001, there were approximately 25,900 new drug users in China (2001年中国禁毒报告, 2002). This is based on the number of people that came into contact with law enforcement for drug crimes, but who were not registered addicts. Over the next decade and a half those numbers steadily increased. In 2016, about a million people were arrested in China for drug-related offences, of which about half were described as new users (2016年中国毒品形势报告, 2017). In the next year, the number of new users fell by a third, although there was a modest increase in the number of registered addicts (Report of the International Narcotics Control Board, 2018), suggesting perhaps that the peak was over for casual drug experimentation or use, which would be backed up by the results of wastewater-based epidemiology that showed drugs preferred by casual users were far less prevalent.
There are near constant campaigns encouraging abstinence and cessation of illegal drug use. In 2007, 2.4 million "pocket books" on illicit drugs were distributed in Shanghai, a thousand "anti-drug education centers" in Maoming in Guangdong, 80 anti-drug TV specials and commercials (2007年中国毒品形势报告, 2008), and the next year, there were ten special editions of provincial newspapers, and an anti-drug awareness week on CCTV (2008年中国毒品形势报告, 2009)—that’s pulling a few examples out of countless education and scare campaigns.
The Chinese government has stopped reporting how many drug traffickers they execute each year, but there's nothing to suggest the number is lower than the last time they reported partial numbers: 54 in 2000 (Zhang & Chin, 2016). Individual executions of traffickers and dealers are still reported on, though. I’ve already mentioned Liu Zhaohua, caught with eleven tons of methamphetamine. As Donald Trump said: “States with a very powerful death penalty on drug dealers don’t have a drug problem. I don’t know that our country is ready for that, but if you look throughout the world, the countries with a powerful death penalty—death penalty with a fair but quick trial—they have very little if any drug problem. That includes China.” (Rupar, 2020.)
That’s an overstatement, given China’s ongoing struggles with addiction, and the trafficking of heroin, methamphetamine, and other drugs. Fear of getting a lethal injection or going in front of a firing squad might not deter many casual users of ketamine or ecstasy, who likely wouldn’t ever possess the weight necessary to get that sentence, but the climate of strict enforcement and harsh punishment at the end of the 2000s could have helped contribute to a drop in numbers (Zhang & Chin, 2016).
Attempting an explanation (IV): The stranglehold of methamphetamine
Methamphetamine was first synthesized by Japanese chemists,⁶⁹ and after filtering through the civilian market as a decongestant and diet drug, it was used to fuel the war effort, handed out to Axis and Allied soldiers and pilots (Brill & Hirose, 1980; Rasmussen, 2008b). Amphetamine use hit the postwar drug scenes in the United States,⁷⁰ then West Germany (Rasmussen, 2008b; Stephens, 2007), but Japan was the country that struggled with an epidemic of use.
Large quantities of the drug, produced for the war effort, flooded the black market, and, even when that supply was exhausted, the drug was still available without a prescription. Methamphetamine abuse and addiction were rampant (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, with occasional spikes in temperature in 1970 and 1980 (Brill & Hirose, 1980).
After more legal measures in the 1970s, criminals had to import almost all methamphetamine, most of it coming in from South Korea (Cho, 1990; Friman, 1991; Suwaki, 1991), where Korean workers in wartime Japanese pharmaceutical plants had set up clandestine operations (Cho, 1991). Korean clandestine manufacturers produced methamphetamine on a “contractual basis” (Cho, 1991), with very little going to the domestic market (Cho, 1991; Park, 2001). After the assassination of Park Chung-Hee in 1979, military leader Chun Doo-hwan took power in a coup d'état, which led to limited social and expansive economic reforms. Those economic reforms brought closer ties to Japan, which made it even easier to ship methamphetamine (Park, 2001).
When South Korea launched an anti-crime drive ahead of the 1988 Olympics, production shifted to Taiwan:
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.)The movement of clandestine labs to Fujian was connected to law enforcement efforts in Taiwan, but local organized crime realized, too, that it was cheaper to outsource (Zhou, 1999, and Zhou, 2000). The methamphetamine trade in the 1990s looked a lot like manufacturing in any other sector, with factories sent to areas with cheaper labor, taking advantage of new logistics networks.⁷¹
By the 1990s, the 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).
This narrative—emphasizing Japanese and Taiwanese organized crime—unfortunately, erases the accomplishments of Chinese drug manufacturers, who had already developed their own sophisticated methamphetamine production bases by the early 1990s. All of these men, now mostly dead, were not remembered during the recent celebrations of the 40th anniversary of Reform and Opening, but their stories are just as important as those of other captains of industry that emerged during that period.
Li Zhiming 黎志明 and his crew had jumped in the game as early as 1989, eventually forming a relationship with a Hong Kong triad member named Li Qiuping 李秋萍 who helped finance a shampoo factory in Jiangmen, Guangdong, which would serve as cover for a clandestine methamphetamine lab. 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, alerted by a huge load of ephedrine bound for his shampoo factory.⁷² 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; 苏智良, 1997 for a more concrete look at the case, and also a history of Taiwanese organized crime and drugs; 齐霁, 2017 for other early methamphetamine trafficking and manufacturing cases; 王金香, 2005 for a general overview of Chinese methamphetamine production.)
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 follow the explosion of methamphetamine across Asia in the 1990s and 2000s (Dargan & Wood, 2012; Mcketin, 2008).
Ketamine only briefly challenged methamphetamine, and when its supply was threatened, methamphetamine was there, easy to synthesize, or ship in through the Golden Triangle. Methamphetamine was cheaper than ketamine, easier to market, easier to find, and easier to take, especially when it started to be sold as 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).
In the American context, a similar situation happened with the sudden disappearance of LSD in the 2000s.
When Clyde Apperson and William Leonard Pickard were arrested in November of 2000 with a drug lab in a Ryder truck and 40 kg of LSD, it was the final blow to an operation that had turned out much of the LSD produced in the United States (Grim, 2004). Pickard and Apperson were both hit with conspiracy to manufacture and distribute LSD. Pickard got life without parole; Apperson got 30 years without parole (“Pickard And Apperson Sentenced On LSD Charges: Largest LSD Lab Seizure In DEA History,” 2003). The DEA declared victory. With only a few players involved in the business, taking Apperson and Pickard out of the game, the DEA claimed, had cut LSD production by 95% (“Pickard And Apperson Sentenced On LSD Charges: Largest LSD Lab Seizure In DEA History,” 2003).
Pickard disputed the claim, suggesting it was more an issue of MDMA displacing LSD:
While LSD was experiencing a steady decline since 1996 and a marked decline in 2001, MDMA use had a strongly positive—almost epidemic—800% increase in the same period, thus suggesting a substitution effect. For when a new drug suddenly becomes widely available to a user population, particularly of a similar class of drugs, substitution effects are inevitable and promoted by the limits of time, cost, and interest of the user population, in this instance the 18–24 age cohort. (Pickard, 2008)Compared to MDMA and other synthetic drugs, LSD was difficult to produce, so it made more sense to produce hits of ecstasy than hits of acid (Grim, 2004). Casual users would be happy to take MDMA instead of LSD.⁷³ This isn't a perfect parallel, but the disappearance of ketamine in China, while methamphetamine boomed—substitution has got to be part of the story there.
Attempting an explanation (V): The Indian crackdown
India, since the early days of clubbers bringing back samples from Goa, has produced most of the ketamine consumed in Asia, and eventually the rest of the world. Most ketamine used in the United States in the 1990s and 2000s was from either Mexico or India (Jansen & Darracot-Cankovic, 2011; Wolff & Winstock, 2006), and any ketamine in the U.K. not diverted from legitimate sources was from India (Nutt & Williams, 2004; Onofrio, 2004). Even at the height of Mainland ketamine use and production, it was still easier for suppliers in Hong Kong to fly it in from India, based on the pattern of busts by customs, including the record 2008 seizure of 325 kg (Lo, 2008).
For the Chinese Mainland, too, Indian ketamine was a major issue. In 2005, a joint operation of Guangdong, Shandong, and Hong Kong police led to the seizure of 1.1 tons of ketamine originating in Mumbai and bound for Yantai in Shandong, traveling by freighter, with stops in Singapore and South Korea ("China seized India-made drugs, 6 arrested"). With India’s links to the Golden Triangle and China’s problem with drugs coming in over the border (Chouvy, 2013; Zhang & Chin, 2016), it was suggested ketamine was coming in those borders (“Narcotics production in China drastically abates in 2018: report,” 2019), possibly from India. Despite being pressured by China and other Southeast Asian countries, Indian authorities could only watch ketamine moving shipped out by air and sea, then alert overseas drug-enforcement agencies. They were hamstrung by its ketamine’s legal status:
While the DRI [Directorate of Revenue Intelligence] has provided the requisite support to [international law enforcement] authorities ... in investigating these cases, law enforcement in India is handicapped by the fact that Ketamine is neither scheduled under the NDPS Act [Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act] nor prohibited/ restricted for export. (Ministry of Finance, 2010).In February of 2011, ketamine was added to the Schedule to the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, and in December of 2013, it was added to Schedule X of the Drug and Cosmetics Act, meaning that it required a special license to buy (Debroy, 2013; Liao et al., 2017).
Almost immediately after the legal changes in India, there was a global ketamine drought. Wastewater-based epidemiology shows a decline in ketamine use in China in the years that follow. Clubbers as far away as London and Berlin were left high and dry (Lankenau & Sanders, 2007, has a discussion of previous intermittent droughts; see also: Power, 2013, 2014; Siddique, 2013).
Eventually, things did get back on track with clandestine production and diversion of legitimate supply in India (Daly, 2016). In 2019, a “pharma company honcho” in charge of Inchem Laboratories of Hyderabad was busted with close to 500 kilos of ketamine manufactured without the proper license (Buddi, 2019). Later that year, a Myanmar-flagged freighter was stopped leaving India with over a ton of ketamine bound for Southeast Asia (King, M).
But it seems that the crackdowns in India and China have led to increased ketamine production in Myanmar and elsewhere in Southeast Asia (Synthetic Drugs in East and South-East Asia, 2019), sometimes controlled by Indian drug trafficking syndicates (Narcotics Control Bureau Annual Report 2017). At the beginning of 2018, raids on drug labs in Myanmar yielded 2.5 tons of ketamine (Synthetic Drugs in East and South-East Asia, 2019). The busts took place around Kutkai Township, which sits on a finger of the Shan State that juts into Yunnan, suggesting the final destination was across the border. There were also small-scale clandestine ketamine production facilities dismantled in Vietnam in 2017 and 2018 (Synthetic Drugs in East and South-East Asia, 2019). Thai authorities began to seize large quantities of precursors bound for Myanmar, and ketamine being brought back into Thailand, moved by Laotian drug gangs (“New ketamine production method puts police on alert,” 2017). Seizures of ketamine in Cambodia went from nothing before 2015 to 36.3 kg in 2018 (Synthetic Drugs in East and South-East Asia, 2019).
Production might have moved even further afield, judging by a recent case in Hong Kong involving the interception of multi-kilo loads of ketamine coming all the way from Germany and the Netherlands by mail (Lo, 2019). The Netherlands cornered the market on MDMA production, but there are signs that clandestine manufacturers there might now be turning out ketamine in larger quantities (EU Drug Markets Report, 2019).
The slowdown in the ketamine supply out of India seems to have helped decrease the demand in China, even if India and Myanmar have picked up the slack again. Methamphetamine returned with a vengeance as the most important casual drug.
Attempting an explanation (VI): Profit motive
If you are going to risk your life and your freedom to manufacture drugs, ketamine is not a good choice. Ketamine is hard to make, you have to make a lot of it, and the market is limited. Most clandestine operations gave up (“Further information provided by the People’s Republic of China on the proposed scheduling of ketamine,” 2015). Clandestine drug chemists had an easier time turning out methamphetamine, the margins were better, and it could also be exported to more markets. If you have a ton of methamphetamine being unloaded from a container at an Australian or American or European port, it’s worth many times more than an equal amount of ketamine.
On the legitimate side of things, if you were running a pharmaceutical company, there was not much incentive to risk jail time to sell grey or black market ketamine. The Taiyuan Pharmaceuticals had mostly been left to fail, and the Chinese pharmaceutical market was worth $127.9 billion in 2018 ("China's pharma market to gain 30% global share,” 2019). Apart from major pharmaceutical firms, there was also the vast ecosystem of chemical manufacturers:
A critical part of China’s rapidly growing economy is its sprawling chemical industry. Its 400,000 chemical manufacturers and distributors (by U.S. Department of State estimates) span the country, making and selling everything from fertilizers to industrial solvents to antibiotics to psychoactive drugs. Most operate legally, some operate illegally, and others are in between. Driven in part by government subsidies and incentive programs, as well as a large population of skilled chemists, China’s pharmaceutical industry has also been growing at a breakneck pace for decades, especially since the normalization of U.S.–China trade relations in 2000. (Westhoff, 2019.)They had the ability to manufacture ketamine, and they probably did (Thornton et al., 2019), but there was more money in other things. There was a small market for 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). But out of those designer dissociatives, only MXE had much success as a recreational drug (Corazzo et al., 2012; Corazzo et al., 2013; De Paoli et al., 2013; Zawilska, 2013). It filled the ketamine-shaped hole left in the heart of dissociative aficionados, and it was sold with the claim that it was “bladder-friendly” (Craig & Loeffler, 2014).⁷⁴ It’s hard to say how popular it was, exactly, but, notably it was sold at Glastonbury in 2011, and occasioned a mild panic in the U.K. (McPherson, 2012). In 2013, it was made a Class B drug under the U.K.’s Misuse of Drugs Act; it remains unscheduled in the United States, but would probably be covered by bans on analogues of arylcyclohexylamines; and after 2015, it was added to China’s list of Supplementary non-medicinal narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, taking it off the menu at most Chinese chemical suppliers (“关于印发’非药用类麻醉药品和精神药品列管办法’的通知,” 2015).
The real business was in turning out drugs that could be substituted for extant recreational drugs, Fentanyl was a substitute for heroin and prescription opioids, and when it was banned manufacturers turned to fentanyl analogues (“fentalogs”), like methoxyacetylfentanyl, acetylfentanyl, tetrahydrofuranylfentanyl, butyrfentanyl, and valerylfentanyl (Gummin, 2020; Solimini et al., 2018). In February 2020, the Temporary Reauthorization and Study of the Emergency Scheduling of Fentanyl Analogues Act made most active analogues of fentanyl illegal, which reflected the moves by most Western states to shut down the fentalog business. Already, though, were alternatives, like U-47700 (3,4-dichloro-N-[(1R,2R)-2-(dimethylamino) cyclohexyl]-N-methylbenzamide, also sold as “Norco”) (Armenian et al., 2017), U-48800 (3,4-Dichloro-N-[(1R,2R)-2-(dimethylamino)cyclohexyl]-N-methylbenzamide), and the acetamide U-50488 (trans-3,4-dichloro-N-(2-(1-pyrrolidinyl) cyclohexyl)-benzeneacetamide) (Amin et al., 2017), which have appeared in North America and Europe (Solimini et al., 2018), and have also been seized in Asia (Synthetic Drugs in East and South-East Asia, 2019). Benzylpiperazine (BZP) had been used as an adulterant in ecstasy tablets, before becoming a recreational drug in its own right. Once it was made illegal, labs could turn out alternative piperazines like MT-45 (1-cyclohexyl-4-(1,2-diphenylethyl)piperazine), which has popped up in the United States, Europe, and Asia, AD-1211 (1-(3-methyl-2-butenyl)-4-[(1R)-1-phenyl-2-(3-hydroxyphenyl)ethyl]piperazine), and bucinnazine (1-butyryl-4-cinnamylpiperazine). Customers of darknet markets looking for a psychedelic could choose something like 25I-NBOMe or 1P-LSD (1-propionyl-lysergic acid diethylamide), or, if they were looking for stimulants, there were 3,4-MDPHP and α-PHP, alternatives to the banned cathinone MDPV (methylenedioxypyrovalerone). And synthetic cannabinoids, the most popular research chemicals in 2019 (Thornton et al., 2019), can perhaps be thought of as an alternative to cannabis.
Eventually, most of them were made illegal in China, covered by analogue bans in the West, and become impossible to move, but, by then, chemists and recreational users had moved on to something else.
Attempting an explanation (VII): It never really ended
I always envisioned this text ending with a trip to a small city in Southern China, maybe somewhere in Fujian or Guangdong, seeking out a low-end nightclub, and uncovering some ketamine holdouts, still snorting. I got in touch with a friend in Shaoguan, who I thought might have the right connections, but he warned me off it. The places that people still use it, they aren’t places you can walk into without an introduction. Outside of those places, he said, most of the people that are into ketamine order it online,⁷⁵ and if they take it in public, they do so discreetly. It’s still party time, and people are still blasting off, but they wised up.
Decade of Dissociation: Bullshitting
This is where we get into territory I'm not comfortable with. I like a materialist explanation. You can skip this. If anything, I hope it suggests how someone could do this kind of analysis more effectively.
Ketamine with Chinese characteristics
Earlier in this text, there was the briefest discussion of movement—of people from one place to another, and of the entire country from one mode to another—and I have to return to it again here, trying, again, to grasp in the dark for some explanation of ketamine. I think there’s a materialist, concrete explanation for the spread of illicit drugs in those patterns of movement. People scattered far and wide, creating new social networks, carrying new ideologies around with them, and the madness of the postsocialist socialist market economy corroded the nationalistic and even the moral taboo on drug use. But why was ketamine one of the few drugs that spread across China?
There was methamphetamine, of course, and heroin, but, I would argue they were different. Methamphetamine was a performance enhancer for the working class, a sexual enhancer for certain subcultures, and, unlike ketamine, highly addictive; China soaked up methamphetamine because its neighbors were going through ice epidemics. Heroin is a historical drug, an updated form of a drug that had been floating around China for centuries; heroin is highly addictive, and not an enjoyable experience for casual users; and heroin use is also a phenomenon generally restricted to the southern borderlands.
And what would the other candidates be for a drug to spread across China in the 2000s? Hashish, perhaps. There was no shortage of hashish in China in the 2000s, but it was a drug mostly restricted to use by certain ethnic minorities, urban hipsters, and foreigners. It never caught on. Benzodiazepines were another possibility, since they could have been diverted from legitimate sources, although perhaps not with as much ease as ketamine. By the early 2000s, when ketamine was spreading, laboratories in China were turning out all manner of tryptamines and phenethylamines, along with plenty of other potential drugs of abuse. MDMA was popular across the border in Hong Kong, and people were popping “head-shaking pills” on the Mainland, but ketamine always outpaced ecstasy.
I’ve misplaced the reference now, but there is an introduction to the problem of illicit PCP use written in the 1970s, written by one of the psychopharmacologists responsible for testing the drug for Parke, Davis & Co. in the 1960s, who can’t wrap his head around anyone taking the drug for fun. I cannot, he writes (I’m paraphrasing), wrap my head around the idea of anyone taking more than once a drug that can make you feel as if you’ve lost your limb or are dead. So, why did PCP have any popularity? After all the moral panic and the stories about super strength, and Big Lurch eating someone,⁷⁶ why is anybody still using PCP? Is there something in the culture of the slums of Dallas, Texas and Gary, Indiana that makes a powerful dissociative the ideal choice? I don’t know. Perhaps it is simply because it’s cheap and combines with marijuana, the most popular drug of abuse.
It’s possible that the spread of ketamine is also simply a case of it being cheap and plentiful, nothing but a generic intoxicant, taken at doses low enough that most wouldn’t experience hallucinations or near-death experiences. But I have set myself the task of explaining why ketamine was special.
An earlier version of this text contained several sections that I called “alternative histories,” which were fictional explanations for the spread of ketamine in China. One featured a Sino-Vietnamese war veteran convalescing in Guiyang from severe burns suffered after a convoy of jeeps and APCs he was riding in was hit by M72 LAW and mortar fire, seeking out a supply of the battlefield anesthetic that had provided his last respite from physical and psychic pain. Another was a fictionalized account of a trip I took to a hippie-ish commune in Hebei, with “super ketamine,”⁷⁷ astral projection, conspiracy theories, and UFOs substituted for the hashish, meditation, and Tibetan folk art that actually dominated the place. Another alternative history involved a plot by art school students to introduce ketamine into the water at a Party retreat, echoing the the Merry Pranksters plotting to hold an event at the Winterland the night before a California Democratic Party event, and "smear all the doors, railings, walls, chairs, the heating system, the water fountains, with DMSO ... laced with LSD ... Dig?" (Wolfe, 1968). What the hell really happened, though? Why was it ketamine?
I think it might be worthwhile to talk again about the effects of ketamine.
When Domino first described ketamine in 1965, as a dissociative anesthetic, he—or rather his wife, Toni Domino, who coined the term—was drawing on the concept of dissociation that had floated around psychology for about a century before, used closest to our contemporary definition by Moreau de Tours to describe his experiences with hashish (Van Der Hart & Horst, 1989). The concept was refined by Pierre Janet, who recorded the feats of a patient—Lucie—who could “perform several actions and perceive a number of sensations apparently unconsciously.” Lucie’s dissociative state involved hallucinations, and also rendered her seemingly incapable of feeling pain: “Lucie was anesthetic over her entire body. When Janet pinched her arm hard she showed absolutely no reaction” (Van Der Hart & Horst, 1989). And Domino’s first description of ketamine again: “Within a minute after drug injection, the subject reported numbness of the entire body, although sensation to touch remained intact” (Domino et al., 1965). Drugs like ketamine mimic the dissociative state, causing a disconnection from the surrounding environment without causing unconsciousness.
Apart from “detachment from reality,” ketamine also causes depersonalization, or "detachment from self" (Niciu et al., 2018).
Dissociation is defined as a disruption in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, and perception, leading to a fragmentation of the coherence, unity and continuity of the sense of self. Depersonalisation is a particular type of dissociation involving a disrupted integration of self-perceptions with the sense of self, so that individuals experiencing depersonalisation are in a subjective state of feeling estranged, detached or disconnected with their own being. (Simeon, 2004.)Dissociation seems to be an easy enough concept for someone to wrap their head around: it feels like losing contact with your body and with the world around you. Depersonalization is less straightforward.
After the disastrous LSD experience I mentioned earlier, I experienced about a year of chronic depersonalization, which would arrive as a wave, during which I would feel as if I had no feeling of being me and in my own body. It’s a bit like finding yourself in another body, but also without a feeling of a discrete “yourself” existing. Emerging from it is profoundly disorienting. In the moment, it’s not pleasant or unpleasant. Ketamine at lower doses produces similar feelings; in high doses, it is almost exactly the same. A description of depersonalization disorder—this one taken from the Mayo Clinic—could be substituted for a description of ketamine’s effects at sufficient dosages:
Feelings that you're an outside observer of your thoughts, feelings, your body or parts of your body — for example, as if you were floating in air above yourself. Feeling like a robot or that you're not in control of your speech or movements. The sense that your body, legs or arms appear distorted, enlarged or shrunken, or that your head is wrapped in cotton. Emotional or physical numbness of your senses or responses to the world around you. A sense that your memories lack emotion, and that they may or may not be your own memories. ("Depersonalization-derealization disorder," 2017.)Ketamine float is not only a vestibular or proprioceptive distortion, but also a change in point-of-view. “Most of our subjects described strange experiences like a feeling of floating in outer space and having no feeling in their arms or legs” (Domino, 2010). High on ketamine, your body is not simply hovering over the KTV room couch, but you feel as if you are looking down at the world and yourself from a dissociated distance. Not everyone’s experience is as overwhelming as this, but it shows us what’s waiting:
Within five seconds of pushing it in I couldn’t move at all. I was just laid out on the floor. It almost felt like astral-projection. I felt like I was traveling somewhere but I could still see myself lying on the ground. I kept wondering, looking at myself laying here, “God, I look dead! Am I dead?” And then, I’m talking to myself, “I’m obviously breathing and the fact that I’m having all these thoughts means I’m okay.” That lasted for about thirty minutes. (An interview with an intravenous ketamine experimenter in Lankenau et al., 2008.)Another user, this time in Hong Kong reports:
My greatest experience with K was when I nearly found myself dying… I wanted to move but I couldn’t. I wanted to hold up my hand but I couldn’t. … I sat at a side and I didn’t know why it seemed that something was going back to my body. I did not know whether it belonged to me or not. Yes, maybe my soul did come back. I found myself becoming clearer. … I was very afraid. I didn’t know whether it was a rebirth, but yes, you could say this. At least I understand the feeling which was nearly death. (An interview with a ketamine user in Joe-Laidler et al., 2014.)But why was it ideal for the age? Why was there a decade of dissociation? Maybe it’s time to separate out ketamine from the discussion for a moment and talk about the dissociative forces of the age. “In Western culture,” Simeon & Abugel write in Feeling Unreal (2006), “we seem to be witnessing a rise in the number of reported cases of depersonalization disorder” (63). The question they pose is “whether or not modern society is, in itself, a cause of depersonalization” (Simeon & Abugel, 2006, 64). Simeon & Abugel point to various causes of the wave of depersonalization in the West, noting the insecurity of the post-September 11th world, but also, more importantly, internet culture.⁷⁸ In China, where the postmodernist logic of fracture and fragmentation was then—in the early 2000s— eroding the last foundations of the socialist society, the corrosive and depersonalizing “splintering of identity” (Dawson, 2011) was cranked up to hyper speed, with the social network of the work unit and dormitory replaced by virtual and temporary networks, the logic of socialist nation-building replaced by the rush to individual wealth.
If we dig into Lacan or Deleuze-Guattari or Jameson, perhaps we could start pulling out quotes that replace their descriptions of late capitalist modernity as “schizophrenic” with “dissociated.” And Dawson in his essay, “Postmodernism and Depersonalization Disorder,” backs that up: “the paradigm of the depersonalized self is perhaps more appropriate than Jameson’s notion of the schizophrenic.” Jameson in particular is talking about the perception of time, the schizophrenic living in perpetual Nietzschean present. For the person with depersonalization disorder “time seems to them to be at a standstill,” (Simon & Abugel, 2006, 62). In the dissociated state, time seems to no longer "unfold in the normal manner; past, present, and future can seem indistinguishable, as if they were indeed all happening at once" (Simon & Abugel, 2006, 62).
Does ketamine disrupt that mass dissociation with its own concentrated blast of depersonalization, or does it complement it? Is the dissociation of ketamine an antidote or an intensifier? With the splintering of identity under the logic of late capitalism, how does it feel to experience it for a brief moment, intentionally? Does ketamine liberate us from the perpetual present? “All drugs fundamentally concern speeds, and modifications of speed,” Deleuze & Guattari tell us, but maybe that can be understood also as “modifications of time.” And let me bring back the anecdote of my bad trip on LSD and the period of chronic depersonalization that followed, which I contend was cured by experimenting with illicit ketamine. Research into ketamine as an antidepressant suggests that the dissociative effect could be precisely what lifts patients out of their drug-resistant blues (Luckenbaugh et al., 2014; Niciu et al., 2018)—a powerful dissociative as the cure for the anxieties of a depersonalized age.
And perhaps we can suggest a split between the positive, life-affirming, and antidepressant dissociation of ketamine, and the corrosive identity splintering depersonalization of turn-of-the-century Chinese society. Psychology proposes some mostly positive or benign psychobiological functions of depersonalization, including the resolution of irreconcilable conflicts, escape from the constraints of reality, and the cathartic discharge of certain feelings (Ludwig, 1983), and I feel comfortable borrowing some of those for the ketamine experience. Neither MDMA or methamphetamine or opiates provide the cathartic experience or escape from reality that ketamine can deliver.⁷⁹
Amphetamines—quoting the Merck Manual here—“increase alertness, enhance physical performance, and produce euphoria and a sense of well-being”; opiates are treasured by manual laborers because they let you keep working through the pain; cannabis and psychedelics are tool for introspection; but ketamine does the opposite, dulling and distorting the senses, making most physical activity difficult, and causing profoundly disturbing sensations.
Turn off, tune out
“On the one hand, San Francisco dance party goers described how using ecstasy (MDMA),” Joe-Laidler, Hunt, and Moloney write in their paper contrasting the American West Coast and Hong Kong, “the drug of choice, mainly at raves but also other dance settings there, facilitated their ‘tuning in’ in terms reminiscent of Leary’s observations of the LSD experience” (Joe-Laidler et al., 2014).⁸⁰ For Leary and those that came after in Western psychedelic, dance, and rave culture, his slogan of “turn on, tune in, drop out” was intended as a call to “interact harmoniously with the world around you” (Leary, 1983a, p. 252), something that nobody taking a powerful dissociative would have hoped for. “Hong Kong dance party goers emphasized how ketamine, the drug of choice in that locale, was a vehicle for ‘tuning out.” (Joe-Laidler et al., 2014).
The popularity ketamine in China and Hong Kong can be partially explained by two cultural factors: a highly stratified nightlife, with most blue collar kickbacks restricted to liquor, cigarettes, and—in Hong Kong, especially—heroin (Joe-Laidler et al., 2014), and cultural beliefs about mental illness and its connection to psychedelic drugs (Cheung & Cheung, 2018). Spaces of leisure were set up for drinking booze, not dancing, and the ideal experience was seen as steady, strong drunkenness. MDMA found a home in certain spaces, but ketamine was ideal, since, although it offered a different experience than getting drunk or nodding on heroin, users of ketamine looked enough like drunks and junkies to not be disruptive.
And contrasting the overseas dance scene with Hong Kong, again, while San Francisco and London ravers were all suburban kids spending daddy’s money, Hong Kong (and, then, of course, also Shenzhen or Guangzhou or Fuzhou or wherever) ketamine users tended to expect a less impressive social trajectory, and lead more restrictive lives:
In a society in which freedom may be increasingly elusive, ketamine’s freeing qualities may be particularly attractive. In this sense, the notion of tuning out is less about shutting out one’s surroundings, and more related to a spiritual awakening of the self and the temporary pursuit for liberation. (Joe-Laidler et al., 2014).
As with all drugs, one ought to resist the sort of intolerance that morally reduces these substances to their active chemical ingredients. Champagne, and beer, whiskey and vodka, sake and soma are indistinguishable in the eye of temperance—but the conditions under which they are normally consumed, their significance of use in society, and the pleasures they produce differ widely. Similarly, tobacco in all its forms, and cigarettes in particular, cannot be judged solely on the basis of the effects of nicotines and tars. (Klein, 1993, 191.)Most illicit drugs in China are consumed in capsule form—MDMA or other synthetic stimulants pressed up as “head-shaking pills," methamphetamine in capsules and pills (mágǔ 麻古), and prescription medicine popped out of blister packs—with the exception of heroin, which is either smoked or injection, and smoked methamphetamine, both mostly restricted to addicts and committed users. In other places, ketamine often appears as pressed pills or capsules (Falkowski, 2003; Jansen, 2001; Lankenau & Clatts, 2002; Lankenau, 2006), but in China, it is usually snorted.
Following a 2014 nightclub bust in Jiangxi, police circulated the photos that had aroused their suspicion: a seventeen year old girl had posted a gallery to Weibo of herself and several friends, snorting ketamine (Griffiths, 2014; “江西17岁女子微博炫耀聚众吸毒被传唤, 涉事人承认吸K粉,” 2014). The pictures sum up the ketamine esthetic perfectly. The series of photos shows young women with long, dyed hair in short dresses snorting ketamine off empty glass platters usually used for delivery fruit trays; in one image the women are seated on a couch, using orange, green, red, pink straws, and in another image, a girl is crouched beside a table, using a transparent straw that appears to be several feet long.
It’s unclear why everyone seems to have taken it as standard practice to snort ketamine. There is not a large difference in bioavailability between intranasal and oral ketamine,⁸¹ and it shouldn’t be an issue for casual users in a region with inexpensive ketamine, which suggests snorting was more of an esthetic choice. Perhaps it’s meant to evoke the scenes of cocaine and heroin snorting in Hong Kong and Hollywood action films, or to amplify its novelty and transgressiveness, maybe stretching the limits of bad boy and bad girl behavior in an age of excess, and maybe also a good excuse to flash a bank card or a credit card
The beginning of the ketamine decade is about as hazy as its close: it entered the Chinese Mainland sometime around 2000, probably through Hong Kong, but it might have been in use before then, and unprecedented social upheaval and working class mobility allowed it to spread around the country, then its use sharply declined, probably because of a combination of a crackdown on domestic and foreign supply, an end to the age of the migrant workers bouncing around the country, and the stranglehold of methamphetamine. The epitome of the Chinese youth culture experience in the 2000s was snorting ketamine in a sleazy club in a city far away from home, shaking your head to a Eurobeat remix of a Mongolian folk song. Ketamine was the ideal drug for the new age, stripped of the gender and socioeconomic signifiers of liquor, and mimicking the depersonalization of postsocialist socialism with Chinese characteristics. Unfortunately for us, nobody bothered to memorialize it in song or short story or film, unless you imagine trips to a side room to blast K in those brilliant Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯 club scenes. And apart from public security literature, blogs about the horrors or ketamine use, a few accounts from Hong Kong, and news reports about busts, you are left with my half-remembered doper stories. I can only hope that enough people reading this will have been there, or this won’t make a lot of sense.
This is an interesting subject. This text barely scrapes the surface. There's a lot of filler.
Go through the references, but I will recommend a few books and articles in particular... On medical use of ketamine: look up all Edward F. Domino has written on the topic, and 胡世全's 医灵: 当代中国麻醉医师的故事. On illicit ketamine use: Jansen's Ketamine: Dreams and Realities and everything else he's written on the topic, Lankenau's chapter on ketamine in Drugs, Clubs and Young People: Sociological and Public Health Perspectives, and check the 1970s articles by Siegel for the earliest accounts of its use. On ketamine use in China: Joe-Laidler & Hunt's work on ketamine abuse in Hong Kong, in particular "Sit Down to Float: The Cultural Meaning of Ketamine Use in Hong Kong" in Addiction Research and Theory, Kam & Harrison's "Globalisation, cultural change and the modern drug epidemics: The case of Hong Kong" in Health, Risk & Society, Mexico's China Underground, "Mis-anaesthetized society: expectancies and recreational use of ketamine in Taiwan" in BMC Public Health, and Hsu's "Ketamine use in Taiwan: Moral panic, civilizing processes, and democratization" in International Journal of Drug Policy. For drugs in China: there is Dikötter, Laamann, and Xun's book, Narcotic Culture, 王金香's 中国禁毒史, 齐霁's 中国共产党禁毒史, and Yongming Zhou's Anti-drug Crusades in Twentieth-century China: Nationalism, History, and State Building.
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¹ “CI” here stands for “clinical investigation.” A clinical investigation number is assigned to drugs ahead of animal and human testing. It was: 2-(2-chlorophenyl)-2-(methylamino)cyclohexan-1-one. #
² Parke, Davis & Co., was a Michigan pharmaceutical company that now goes by the name Parke-Davis. It passed the century mark before being swallowed up by Warner–Lambert in 1970, which was in turn swallowed up by Pfizer. Before the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 and the Jones-Miller Act of 1922, Parke, Davis & Co. was one of the country’s major suppliers of cocaine. They are also notable for preparing a fluid extract of peyote for British occultist Aleister Crowley (Everitt, 2016). #
³ CI-395 was eventually marketed as Sernyl and Sernylan, but it is more commonly known as phencyclidine (PCP), or any of the long list of street names, which include angel dust, ink, THC crystals, gorilla biscuits, sherm, click ’em juice, fry, embalming fluid, water, and wet. #
⁴ Vestibular hallucinations are, for example, the sensation of floating, sometimes called vestibular-motor sensations, or even being wildly off-balance. Proprioceptive hallucinations involve misperceptions of the orientation of your body in space. Even if you have never taken ketamine, you might have felt similar hypnagogic sensations in the moments before you fall asleep. #
⁵ After discovering the drug’s side effects, phencyclidine was studied for its “schizophrenomimetic” (Luby et al., 1959), or “psychotomimetic” effects (Huang & Lin, 2020), and only saw extremely limited use as an anesthetic in the developing world (Phillips et al., 1970 describes it being used in Nigeria). After 1967, phencyclidine was sold by Philips Roxane as a veterinary anesthetic, marketing it under the trade name Sernylan. #
⁶ This seems to be down to ketamine and PCP (and also related arylcyclohexylamines, like eticyclidine or N-ethyl-phenylcyclohexylamine [PCE], and tenocyclidine or 1-(1-(2- thienyl)-cyclohexyl)-piperidine [TCP], as well as other drugs, like dextromethorphan and nitrous oxide—and the list goes on and on) functioning as N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonists. This has been extensively studied. One of the most accessible papers is by Domino, “Chemical dissociation of human awareness: focus on non-competitive NMDA receptor antagonists” (1992), in which he explains the relationship between glutamic acid, excitatory amino acids, and human awareness. #
⁷ Domino is quoted and referred to many, many times in this book. He conducted the first human experiments with ketamine anesthesia, published on novel research on ketamine in six decades, and is also a gifted writer, who even a layman like myself can make sense of. If you have the slightest interest in dissociatives and psychopharmacology, I recommend digging into his work. For a good overview of Domino’s contributions to the field, see Denomme, 2018. #
⁸ In Afghanistan and in several other conflicts, ketamine was found to be problematic because of the emergence syndrome. At the time, doctors were still experimenting with how to reduce it. Blatchley writes: “When necessary we used intramuscular ketamine anaesthesia, supplemented with diazepam. We found this adequate, safe, and easy to administer. Diazepam prevented the emergence of delirium, even in a race of people who express their emotions so strongly.” For an overview of battlefield ketamine use pre-2000, see Mercer, 2009. #
⁹ If we are to believe Jansen, 2004, based on his interviews, ketamine was being sold as “rock mescaline” less than a year after the drug was patented, meaning that it was entering the scene right around the same time as PCP. #
¹⁰ This is borne out by the diverging path of the two drugs—ketamine as psychedelic party drug and psychonaut sacrament, and PCP memorialized mostly in Bay Area and New Orleans rap songs. #
¹¹ Suchman, 1968 is a vintage portrait of the type of youths that were in the psychedelic lifestyle, and Siegel, 1978 is a portrait of the average San Francisco and Los Angeles ketamine fiends. #
¹² Morgan & Kagan, 1980 reproduces some vintage headlines at the top of the article, which is about representations of PCP in popular media: "The Devil Drug of All Time," "Violence Increases Due to Angel Dust," "Person High on PCP Gouges Out His Own Eyes." #
¹³ I wonder now if the two drugs were ever substituted for each other. Would someone seeking PCP be satisfied by ketamine? Would someone seeking ketamine be satisfied by PCP? Their unequal potencies make a switch difficult. To equal a 5 mg oral dose of PCP, you would need to take almost 100 mg of ketamine. But equalled out, perhaps. At low doses, PCP and ketamine are similar enough, although PCP has longer lasting effects. I'll conclude: I doubt it. #
¹⁴ This account is from Jansen, 2004, which contains a chapter on the relationship between Lilly and Moore. It also notes Lilly’s own troubles with ketamine, some of which are detailed in his book, like the bike accident, smashing up furniture, and sexually assaulting a woman, but some which are not, like nearly drowning in a pool while sinking on a heroic dose of the drug. It’s hard to say now how much ketamine contributed to Moore’s death. Lilly, by contrast, managed to live into his late 80s. #
¹⁵ Ketamine has no particularly evocative slang terms, most coming from the first initial of its name (vitamin K, special K, etc.) but MDMA or ecstasy has a decent list, including eckies, X, E, beans, thizz, molly, sweeties, mandy, and rolls. #
¹⁶ Those of us outside of Europe associate the Netherlands with marijuana, but their obscene output of synthetic drugs kept the continent awash in MDMA (and also 3,4-Methylenedioxyamphetamine [MDA] and 3,4-Methylenedioxy-N-ethylamphetamine [MDE, or sometimes Eve]), psychedelic amphetamines (2,5-Dimethoxy-4-iodoamphetamine [DOI], 2,5-Dimethoxy-4-bromoamphetamine [DOB], 2,5-Dimethoxy-4-methylamphetamine [DOM, or, in the 1960s American drug scene, STP]), and psychedelic phenethylamines (2,5-dimethoxy-4-bromophenethylamine [2C-B], 2,5-Dimethoxy-4-propylthiophenethylamine [2C-T-7], and 4-bromo-2,5,beta-trimethoxyphenethylamine [BOB]). #
¹⁷ Most states do not monitor ketamine arrests or split them out of the synthetic drugs category when showing statistics, so it’s hard to get much of an idea how ketamine penetrated the country. It was enough to get the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency concerned. #
¹⁸ The massive number of copies printed of each edition of these guides means that many have survived. I have before me a 1962 edition of Clinical Anesthesiology, compiled by Xie Rong, which is likely slightly more expansive than the editions from the 1950s, which were compiled at the direction of Shang Deyan (胡世全, 2017). #
¹⁹ Feng et al., 2014 notes that the manufacture of these drugs was mostly done in China by the 1950s, with factories turning out ether, procaine, and succinylcholine, among other compounds. #
²⁰ I am not sure about the precise nature of that criticism. Hu Shiquan 胡世全 in his history of Chinese anesthesiology describes Shang Deyan’s experience during the Cultural Revolution very simply as, “he was attacked and criticized on posters” (“受冲击, 被贴大字报”). One of his students, Deng Shuozeng 邓硕增, it is explained, “due to the influence of the Cultural Revolution” was only returned to his studies in 1978, after over a decade absent. Wang Jingyang 王景阳, another leading anesthesiologist, spent the Cultural Revolution herding sheep. #
²¹ For more on early human tests, see 北京市麻醉协作组, 1974; and see also: 封宗孝 et al., 1981; 吴锡文, 1975. I am unclear whether or not this ketamine was synthesized in China, but I believe it was, based on some of the language in those papers. By that time, though, I guess they could have brought it in from an American manufacturer. #
²² Or, in full, in the first paper, 2-línlǜběnjī-2-jiǎ'ànjī-huánjǐtóng 2-邻氯苯基-2-甲胺基环己酮, but now usually 2-línlǜběnjī-2-sì'ānjī-huányǐtóng 2-邻氯苯基-2-四氨基-环已酮. #
²³ As well, I personally find the history of the Golden Triangle and China’s southern borderlands interesting. Unfortunately, it’s one area where I lack expertise, and I am also sensitive to the fact that readers might not be looking for a history of Indochina folded into the story of ketamine and China. I picture them scrolling through this, looking for details on smokey nightclubs where nude women are taking blasts of powder. We’ll get there soon. Hooligans are snorting ketamine soon. #
²⁴ Edwards, 2010 estimates total casualties for the PVA at 360,000. #
²⁵ A brief entry in the 1984 Yearbook of Chinese Medicine (Zhōngguó Yīxuékēxué Niánjiàn 中国医学科学年鉴, 1984 credits Li Fujin 李复金 as the first to direct ketamine’s use in the Vietnam conflict, and suggests he wrote an article on the topic for People's Liberation Army Journal of Medicine (解放军医学杂志), which I haven’t managed to track down, but it makes sense, given that he was attached to the Guangzhou Military Region at the time. #
²⁶ On soldiers being able to give ketamine to each other, ketamine was called the “buddy drug” in Vietnam (Jansen, 2004). #
²⁷ 1658 to be exact. After 1999, it gets more complicated, as CNKI turns up more hits on topics like ketamine as a drug of abuse and ketamine addiction. #
²⁸ Is there undue credence granted the Goa expat story? It’s possible, given that the drug was already in widespread use in Europe and the United States that an enterprising drug dealer imported a bunch to Hong Kong, hoping to sell it in Lan Kwai Fong, or maybe a few kilos showed up and a smuggler passed it onto dealers, or maybe, since Hong Kong was a transshipment point for South Asian drugs, a load caught the attention of someone in Hong Kong. Who knows! #
²⁹ Does that strike you as odd? Would slightly cheaper prices push you to use drugs in a country with far harsher laws against them? 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). #
³⁰ There are earlier references to illicit use in PRC sources, but as a date rape drug (qiángjiānyào 强奸药) (司徒谷雨, 2001), which was, it turns out, not incredibly common (Date Rape Drugs: Hearing before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Committee on Commerce, 1999, p. 65). #
³¹ I think it's worth noting that these are all depressants. Talwin is a benzomorphan, one of the trippiest opioids; flunitrazepam is a hypnotic sedative, related to benzodiazepine cousins like alprazolam (Xanax) and clonazepam (Klonopin); Quaalude was a vintage 1970s disco drug, the perfect no-go pill to pop after a night of cocaine and Canadian Club; and barbiturates like phenobarbital are a dangerously powerful central nervous system depressant now seldom prescribed. The Taiwanese of the 1960s and 1970s had a powerful need to chill out, apparently. #
³² Huang et al., 2014 predicts the peak of the methamphetamine epidemic and the triumph of ketamine, but that was leaving out a key detail: methamphetamine addicts might use ketamine as a recreational adjunct, and ketamine users might occasionally indulge in methamphetamine (or take it in tablets or capsules disguised as other drugs, like MDMA), but those were two discrete groups of drug users. #
³³ In particular, that includes 4-chloroamphetamine (4-CA, also known as para-chloroamphetamine [PCA]), and 3-chloroamphetamine, although MDMA is itself also a designer amphetamine. #
³⁴ There were only 70,000 in 1990 (Zhao et al., 2004). Was that low number legitimate or the result of undercounting? I would guess the former. #
³⁵ 23% were over the age of 35 in 2001, and 40% were over 35 by 2010, which maybe gives an idea of how many were likely to be exposed to a drug like ketamine. In Taiwan, surveys show a clear generational divide: older people use heroin and, to a lesser extent, methamphetamine, while younger people prefer amphetamine-type stimulants and other synthetic drugs. #
³⁶ Official numbers estimated 1.5 million users of "new drugs" in 2016, which is a little further on than the decade of ketamine I’m trying to describe. #
³⁷ Out of those surveyed, 67 had used drugs before 1952, which is quite impressive. #
³⁸ Americans love drugs. 56.25% of American 18-34 year olds had taken illicit drugs in their lifetimes, according to a 2003 survey. A survey from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found 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 the percentage of Canadians who used 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. #
³⁹ The term "subaltern" comes from Antonio Gramsci, who used it as a workaround to refer to the proletariat, when his letters from prison were censored, but it gained popularity in postcolonial studies and from the work of a group of South Asian academics that were known as the Subaltern Studies Group. The subaltern is the lower classes. The term has been "reinserted" into Chinese sociology and theory, etc. by writers like Wanning Sun. (Dutton was riding an earlier wave of Chinese subaltern studies, coming out of the late 1990s.) As Dutton explains, “In the context of Chinese history writing official Party class discourse colonises the space available for a subaltern history. The 'effect' of the reinsertion of the term subaltern, which includes its propensity to heterology, leads to a non-linear historical account which, in turn, offers a dynamic rendition of classes that draw breath from the mercurial nature of China as it undergoes economic reform.” #
⁴⁰ It’s hard to say what the result was of the Cultural Revolution unleashing hordes of horny Red Guards for unsupervised, unprotected fucking, but the first case of syphilis didn’t get recorded again until 1979, long after the end of the most chaotic years. The first years of the Cultural Revolution really were an extended Summer of Love. #
⁴¹ The children of the 1960s baby boom in China were old enough to rush to the coasts in the late 1970s and 1980s, and that generation had kids before the stricter family planning rules of the 1980s, creating a large, very young workforce, ready to work the line at factories by 1999 or 2000 (Basten & Jiang, 2015). #
⁴² Was ketamine use free of dickwaving and masculinity? No, of course not. But I would say there was less. There's that line from—I think—Peter Hessler about how for all the paintings and poems about the glories of intoxication on wine, there could be a dozen more showing men forcing each other to drink. I did occasionally see drinking games substituting lines of ketamine for shots of beer or liquor, and I have seen references to people dying playing similar games, but I would say there was more awareness that taking too much ketamine was dangerous, compared to the awareness that drinking too much Chivas and green tea is dangerous. And I mean, all things considered, drinking too much blended scotch is probably more dangerous than an overdose of ketamine, if you're just snorting it. I don't recommend taking too much of either, though. #
⁴³ 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. For comparison, the legal monthly minimum wage in Shenzhen was $547 USD in 2000, $450 USD in Guangdong, $420 in Fujian (Dinh et al, 2013), which doesn’t tell us that much. The National Bureau of Statistics showed an average of about $300 USD in 2011, after a 21 percent increase over the previous year (China Labor Bulletin, 2012), so we can be sure few migrant workers were pulling down $547 a month in Shenzhen in 2000. There’s research which claims some workers were earning as little as $80 to $150 USD a month in the early 2000s (Law & Peng, 2006), which seems improbably low, but might be removing construction work from the equation. But given all that, ketamine was cheap enough to be accessible to the masses. #
⁴⁴ There is nowhere to cite an average dosage of ketamine in China. Outside China, a lot of literature cites Dalgarno & Shewan, 1996, an article on Scottish ketamine users, which says an average line of ketamine was 60-125 mg, which is a wild range, breaking a gram into 17 lines or 4 massive earthworms. In my experience, rather than lines, ketamine is mostly done in bumps—small amounts taken over an extended period to maintain the buzz—and the size of lines in Chinese clubs and KTVs are closer to those bumps than to the monster lines being ripped by Glasgow junkies in the mid-1990s. #
⁴⁵ I know of 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. He called it “¡KRACK!” #
⁴⁶ Those areas were the Midwest (mostly Detroit and satellites of Chicago, like Gary), the South (mostly Texas and New Orleans), and Washington, D.C. If not for rap music, I wouldn’t have known that anybody was still getting wet. There are earlier references, but the first I recall is from TRU’s 1995 regional smash "I'm Bout It, Bout It," in which Master P advises: “You better not fuck with them fools that’s gone on that water water / I mean that click ‘em juice, formaldehyde / Whatever you wanna call what they dippin’ in cigarettes to get high.” When Master P remade the song for his 1996 Ice Cream Man solo album, he kept the references to PCP, claiming to exercise control over local sales (“I got niggas in the projects sellin’ water”), and referencing, “Niggas frying / Gone off that juice (formaldehyde).” In Houston, another center of PCP use, we have the classic UGK track “It’s Supposed to Bubble,” whose chorus of “It’s Dom Pérignon, it’s supposed to bubble” belies the fact that it’s in fact an ode to PCP, with Bun B rapping, “But we ain’t trippin’, pass that dip an’ / It's gonna be alright, soon as I get fried tonight / Yeah bitch, I got your ho, but, ho, I'll break your knees / Full of Dom Pérignon and water for the Gs.” The Geto Boys were known to smoke fry, too (Corcoran, 2017, p. 45: “When you rode with the G.B.'s you snorted PCP or smoked ‘fry,’ a marijuana-filled cigar soaked in embalming fluid which produces psychotic thoughts”). DJ Screw and the Screwed Up Click were fueled as much by PCP as they were codeine cough syrup, judging by the innumerable references to “fry” and “water” in Screwtape freestyles, and the results of DJ Screw’s toxicology report. Z-Ro had a mixtape called Angel Dust (2012). And on the ESG album that soundtracked the writing of this book—Shinin N Grindin (1999)—he raps: “Some don't understand, where the sherm'll take ya / Off the ledge, flat on your head, to meet your damn maker.” #
⁴⁷ This is a lightly fictionalized account of the story of Li Zuoshu, Cao Yongjiang, and Taiyuan Pharmaceutical. The general story and most details are drawn from news reports (“曹永江制贩毒集团案,” 2004; O'Neill, 2002; “太原制药厂特大制毒贩毒案始末,” 2002). #
⁴⁸ A discussion on Rhodium in 1998 has a poster asking for advice on ketamine synthesis, but several responses attempt to dissuade him: "Talk to a customs broker, look in the east, no need to synth," one commenter says, and another advises, "Check out Shree Ganesh Pharmaceuticals, in India." Another lengthy Rhodium thread lists at least half a dozen ketamine suppliers, most operating out of India, who could ship direct to the United States. The thread comes to an abrupt end in 1999, when ketamine is made a Schedule III drug. #
⁴⁹ Did he actually synthesize ketamine? Probably, but I don’t know, since nothing is said anywhere about what precisely he was up to. Perhaps he was simply converting ketamine freebase to ketamine hydrochloride. Rumor has it that some suppliers would still sell ketamine freebase, which enterprising chemists could convert themselves, although that was technically illegal under the new 2004 rules (“关于开展氯胺酮专项检查工作的通知,” 2004). Was he really among the first to produce ketamine clandestinely? That makes for a better story. He was definitely among the first to get caught. The Report of the International Narcotics Control Board for 2016 claims China took down about 100 ketamine laboratories each year, but doesn’t give a date, specifying only "during the recent past" ("这些年来" in the Chinese version, and another source [this is from a China National Narcotics Control Commission report, quoted in Precursors and Chemicals Frequently Used in the Illicit Manufacture of Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, 2018] claims ketamine laboratories began to be busted in significant number starting in 2014) suggesting not many clandestine labs operating five or even ten years prior, when the Ketamine Kid was working. #
⁵⁰ In Chinese, bīngdú 冰毒, literally “ice drug,” is methamphetamine. #
⁵¹ Cobbled together from a longer conversation conducted through WeChat voice messages. The interview subject is a resident of Guangzhou, female, 35 years old. Interview subject was introduced by a bowling alley worker mentioned in “Some Numbers and Some Parallels.” #
⁵² This is my translation of an excerpt from a story in 费鸣东, 2005. And who’s to say it isn’t true? Most public security literature will quote a case number when talking about crimes, then cleave close to the facts, but this story doesn’t seem to refer to an actual incident, and it’s more over-the-top than the average Chinese crime story, leading me to believe it’s more of a fable than a true tale. #
⁵³ The story he wrote in that collection is “On the Trail of Borderlands Drug Bandits” "追踪边境毒土豪," set on the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region-Vietnam border. #
⁵⁴ This story was serialized in a public security magazine in 2008, but a search for the title will bring up countless online versions. #
⁵⁵ The girls are usually selected by customers from a small lineup, then sing, drink, and generally hang out. They’re not unlike the hostesses in Japanese kyabakura キャバクラ, but unlike the kyabajo キャバ嬢, who don’t go much beyond company-sanctioned before work dates, KTV girls are often available for paid sex inside the KTV room, and usually available for compensated dates and paid sex outside of work hours. #
⁵⁶ This is from the lingo of American soldiers, who formerly used Methedrine or Desoxyn (methamphetamine) as go pills, and later Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine), Ritalin (methylphenidate), Provigil (modafinil), and Adderall (levoamphetamine and dextroamphetamine), while the no-go pill was a benzodiazepine and, later, Ambien (zolpidem). Not much different from what KTV girls take. #
⁵⁷ Looking at that price, American methamphetamine users have to feel some pangs of jealousy. The price listed here for ten grams is what most Americans would have paid for a sixteenth of an ounce in 2012. The price for methamphetamine has fallen in the United States, but nowhere near what it is in China. #
⁵⁸ There is more from Taiwan and Hong Kong… but not much more! Perhaps I could have devoted a section to Hong Kong dance group MP4's "Don't Sniff K, Daddy," but Joe-Laidler & Hunt, 2008 does a good enough job of dealing with that. #
⁵⁹ Opium is a drug that you would struggle to find in China. That can be chalked up to aggressive attempts to stamp out its use, but it’s mostly because anyone with access to opium would rather process it into morphine, then into heroin. But even talking about dàmá 大麻 in China, it's often assumed you're talking about opium, rather than weed. In Japan, too, taima 大麻 is often taken as opium or heroin. #
⁶⁰ Is Mexico, 2009 the exception? Does it contain an admission to recreational ketamine use? I think it does, but I can't say for sure. #
⁶¹ I have on my desk a bottle of “New Bron Liquid,” a Japanese cough syrup that still uses dihydrocodeine as the active ingredient. When opioids are left in cough syrup, they are new accompanied by other ingredients to sicken potential abusers or counteract the effects of the good stuff. In the case of “New Bron Liquid,” the antihistamine chlorpheniramine maleate is included, which can kill you in high enough dosages, and caffeine, which kills the downer buzz of dihydrocodeine. That’s the same idea with the “lean” syrups, which contain an opiate and antihistamine. Tussionex, for example, contains hydrocodone along with chlorpheniramine polistirex. (In other cases, though, the antihistamine promethazine intensified the effects of codeine! And some preparations even included the hypnotic glutethimide.) For more on the abuse of codeine- and hydrocodone-containing cough syrups see: Three 6 Mafia's "Sippin' on Some Syrup" (2000), which features additional verses from UGK and Project Pat. #
⁶² See Linn et al., 2014 for psychopharmacology, and Martinak et al., 2017, too, which includes a reference to DXM as “poor man’s PCP.” Shulgin, 1975 is an early reference to it as a drug of abuse (“The broad availability of dextromethorphan has promoted the misuse of this chemical, and its name has entered the popular ethic of abusive potential.”). None of the medical literature is particularly complimentary, with Stanciu & Penders, 2015 advising that it “may result in a manic toxidrome of psychomotor agitation, hostility, grandiose behavior, hallucinations, paranoia, and panic.” It’s received less attention as a drug of abuse, and less serious treatment from the more interesting writers on illicit drugs. It’s widely misunderstood. A letter to the editor of a medical journal describes a trend of dextromethorphan being passed off as "the newest ecstasy" at "rave parties," in place of ecstasy, which the authors claim is a drug that usually contains either methamphetamine or GHB (gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid) (McFee et al., 2000). It doesn’t get any facts completely wrong (ecstasy could contain methamphetamine, and MDMA could even be called methamphetamine, and GHB has been sold as “liquid ecstasy,” and, yes, people have been found to sell cold medication as ecstasy) but it doesn’t sell its main argument, and the actual story of dextromethorphan abuse has nothing to do with someone passing bunk pills at a rave in Abilene. #
⁶³ In the interests of harm reduction, if you are reading this and would like to try it, please read labels carefully. Confirm whether or not the preparation you’ve bought contains dextromethorphan hydrobromide or dextromethorphan polistirex. Watch out for other active ingredients, like pseudoephedrine, acetaminophen, guaifenesin, and especially chlorpheniramine maleate, which can be deadly in the quantities required to get high on the DXM in the syrup. #
⁶⁴ See Gelfer, 2007 for a discussion of neo-shamanism among the syrup chuggers, DXM as sacrament, and underground DXM culture. #
⁶⁵ If anyone questions the wisdom of using illicit drugs in China, I would say, in this instance, that I was barely in my twenties, and I didn’t even know whether or not what I was snorting was illegal there, since I knew that most research chemicals made it out of the country due to looser scheduling of psychoactive drugs. Also, earlier that night, I had seen a few guys openly smoking a joint in Blue Marlin. It was a different time. Tianyu Fang once said that I'm the reason that foreigners now have to submit to random piss tests in nightclub raids. There's some truth to that. #
⁶⁶ Since the days when opium and heroin were the major drugs of abuse, the Golden Triangle has been the source of most drugs in China, and that continued when methamphetamine moved across the border in the 1990s. In 2013, Myanmar was the source of 92.2% of heroin and 95.2% of methamphetamine seized in China (Zhang & Chin, 2016). #
⁶⁷ If you remove from that average those migrants that still go to the coast, the average age skyrockets. Anyone still going to the PRD or YRD tends to be quite a bit younger than those that stay in their home province or region. #
⁶⁸ As an example, you could have someone that lives in Kaifeng migrating to work at an electronic assembly plant in Luoyang, or, in the “own region” case, they could live within or almost within the limits of the Zhengzhou metropolitan area, then move to a manufacturing area within the Zhengzhou area. #
⁶⁹ It’s still up for debate when and where and who first synthesized methamphetamine. But the usual story is that Nagai Nagayoshi 長井長義 stumbled upon it while experimenting with ephedrine in the 1890s, then Ogata Akira 緒方章 found a more elegant process in the 1910s, but there are claims from German scientists, as well. The history of amphetamines is hard to sort out because of the use of “amphetamine” and “methamphetamine” to refer to multiple compounds. See Parsons, 2013, and Rasmussen, 2008b for good histories of the drug. #
⁷⁰ Lester Bangs claims that without methamphetamine, we would be deprived of the following: “Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl,' Blue Cheer, Cream, and Creem, as well as all of the fine performances in Andy Warhol movies not inspired by heroin” (Boon, 2005). #
⁷¹ Outsourcing and the global supply chain are factors for illicit drugs, just like in any other business. China joined the World Trade Organization, and its illicit drug manufacturers had their own shadow union. 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). In recent years, Guangdong has become a major hub for shipping cocaine into the United States, and heroin has a long history of being shipped through China; Colombians are now operating money laundering operations out of Guangdong. #
⁷² Ephedrine is a decongestant and mild stimulant that can be used in the production of methamphetamine. China happens to produce much of the world's ephedrine, extracted from Ephedra sinica. It is not used in the production of shampoo. #
⁷³ Anyone looking for a psychedelic alternative to LSD could substitute psilocybin mushrooms, or research chemicals like α-Methyltryptamine (AMT), 2,5-dimethoxy-4-bromophenethylamine (2C-B), or, later still, 25I-NBOMe, which was potent enough to fit on a tab and produced very similar effects to LSD. #
⁷⁴ Ketamine might not put holes in your brain, as previously thought, but thickening of the bladder walls and reduction in bladder size are very real side effects that longterm users have experienced. Stay safe. #
⁷⁵ I have seen WeChat advertising for ketamine, but it seems far easier to buy methamphetamine. If you use the WeChat function that allows you to find users in your proximity, there are usually offers of prostitution and drugs. But most of the committed drug buyers sequester themselves in QQ groups, according to a friend familiar with the scene. #
⁷⁶ Texas-born, California-based rapper Antron "Big Lurch" Singleton blamed his PCP addiction after he murdered and ate the lungs of an acquaintance. #
⁷⁷ I imagined that “super ketamine” as 2-Fluorodeschloroketamine (2-FDCK), a ketamine analogue with fluorine replacing the chlorine group, which is suspected to be more potent and long-lasting than racemic ketamine. #
⁷⁸ Staring at a computer phone or screen, especially in a darkened room, touch-typing or mindlessly scrolling the feed, is the most potent dissociative experience most of us will have. That is a key ingredient in the Chinese decade of dissociation, with most working class Chinese devoting much of their idle time to screens (Law, 2012; Law & Peng, 2006). #
⁷⁹ In a recent piece for a New York media elite-centered lifestyle website, a writer tries to get to the bottom of why rootless cosmopolitans are taking ketamine again. A Brooklyn filmmaker explains why her peer group of “mostly queer women” are taking ketamine: “‘We’re all so overwhelmed, it makes sense that we’re literally taking dissociatives. ... We don’t have time to be hungover, everybody is exhausted, and pulled in so many different directions. It’s the peak of distraction culture.’” She adopts the language of “self-care”: “In 2019, escaping isn’t just something you do for fun; it’s a survival tactic at a time where the world feels so inescapably stressful and out of control.” But it is interesting that the piece speaks of a “dissociative moment” (Silman, 2019). #
⁸⁰ This is Timothy Leary's most famous catchphrase, but was in fact conceived by Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan. It was an exhortation to “go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment.” #
⁸¹ Autissier, 2018 puts the bioavailability of oral ketamine at 16-24%, intranasal at 25-50%, and intramuscular at 93%. #