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Australian Scientists Receive Mystery Drug at Pill-Testing Center

FILE - Glass capsules containing ketamine are seen in Thailand in 2008.
FILE - Glass capsules containing ketamine are seen in Thailand in 2008.

Canberra scientists are researching a mysterious new recreational drug not seen before in Australia. The Australian National University says the substance is a “close cousin” of ketamine, a controlled anesthetic used by doctors and veterinarians.

The new substance is known as “CanKet” — a Canberra ketamine. It was discovered at Australia’s first government-supported pill-testing center that started as a trial in the national capital earlier this year.

The research team says the new drug was handed in at Australia’s first pill-checking center in Canberra. The user thought it was ketamine but said its effects were unusual and wanted it checked by experts at the pill-monitoring service. The drug was presented in a “small plastic bag of crystals and powder.”

Australian National University scientists believe the new drug was probably imported from overseas. It is not known whether CanKet has side effects. It is chemically similar to ketamine but has characteristics that have not been seen previously.

Associate professor Malcolm McLeod of the Australian National University Research School of Chemistry told VOA that ketamine and its derivatives are becoming increasingly popular illicit drugs.

Ketamine is used in medicine and as a horse tranquilizer. It is also a popular recreational drug linked to a phenomenon known as the “k-hole” — a type of out-of-body experience. Common side effects include nightmares, hallucinations, high blood pressure and confusion.

It is typically injected, snorted, or taken orally.

In 2019, an estimated 9 million Australians — or more than 40% of the population aged over 14 — had illicitly used a drug, according to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey. The survey is a government-funded project that has been collecting data about alcohol, tobacco and drug consumption in Australia every two to three years since 1985.

The most popular illicit drugs were cannabis and cocaine. The survey showed that ketamine use rose from 0.4% of respondents in 2016 to 0.9% in 2019.