Sri Lanka’s Police Narcotics Bureau officials and Navy officials display in April 2020 packages containing ketamine and crystal methamphetamine captured of the coast of Colombo. A new study worries about a dramatic street increase of ketamine in the United States. File Photo by Chamila Karunarathne/EPA-EFE
May 24 (UPI) -- Dramatic increases in illegal ketamine found by law enforcement from 2017 through last year have sparked concerns over a possible spike in recreational use, researchers from New York University and the University of Florida said in study released Wednesday.
The new analysis on illegal ketamine seizures and its potential image was published online in peer-reviewed JAMA Psychiatry.
The study, led by NYU Grossman School of Medicine and the National Drug Early Warning System at the University of Florida, found a 349% increase in seizures of illicit ketamine by drug enforcement throughout the United States from 2017 through 2022.
Ketamine is a short-acting dissociative anesthetic commonly prescribed off-label to treat chronic pain and depression. The study suggests that there will likely be an increase in people who use it recreationally or who use it inadvertently.
Researchers said the flood of illegal ketamine means that users most likely will use adulterated and potentially harmful versions of the drug.
"Unlike illegal ketamine years ago, most illegally obtained ketamine today is not pharmaceutical grade and is sold in powder form which may increase the risk that it contains other drugs such as fentanyl," study author Joseph Palamar said in a news release.
Palamar is an associate professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone Health and a researcher in the Center for Drug Use and HIV/HCV Research at NYU School of Global Public Health.
"Unintentional exposure to fentanyl can lead to overdose," he said.
The study said some the problems with increased drug availability came from the loosening of U.S. prescribing practices during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which allowed more patients to use telemedicine services for vital medications.
"While many patients benefited, the loosened restrictions also gave rise to an industry of pop-up clinics prescribing ketamine online and off-label for a variety of mental health conditions, with little oversight of side effects," the study said.
Researchers said that although the risk of overdose from ketamine alone is low, some people who use the drug report dissociative side effects, such as becoming dizzy or nauseous.
A bigger concern, Palamar said, is that illegal ketamine can be easily contaminated with much more dangerous fentanyl and is already showing up mixed with heroin and cocaine.
He said in the law enforcement seizures from 2017 to 2022, the number of pounds captured increased from 127 pounds in 2017 to about 1,550 pounds in 2022.
Palamar said he hopes the findings will better inform prevention and harm reduction strategies to protect the public from increased exposure to illegal ketamine.