Ketamine smugglers cash in on growth of 'danger drug'

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Media captionSecret filming shows a black market ketamine dealer in India

A BBC investigation has uncovered evidence of ketamine smuggling ahead of a new report into the dangers of the drug.

The review by the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs will say that the animal tranquiliser is now the fourth most popular party drug in the UK.

It will also state that ketamine's classification as a Class C substance fails to recognise the harm it can do to regular users.

But the report, which is due out on Thursday, will not call for ketamine to be reclassified - because its authors say classification will not stop people taking the drug.

One of the main sources for the drug is India, where earlier this year the authorities put in place new rules to try to prevent its misuse.

In the bustling pharmaceuticals market in Delhi you can buy everything from wheelchairs to canisters of oxygen.

But the traders make clear that you can no longer purchase ketamine here.

"It is a doctor-only drug," one stallholder said. "You won't be able to buy it in the market."

However, we have discovered there is a black market trade in India.

Hidden in jars

Harsh Choudhary advertises on the internet as a pharmaceuticals agent who sells a range of drugs, including ketamine.

We met him in Delhi and secretly recorded him as he revealed that he exports the substance to buyers all over the world, including in the UK, the United States and Canada.

"I can show you recent tracking numbers," he said.

"I have... guys who can arrange the ketamine in thousands of kilograms for me."

He went on to reveal that he smuggles the drugs out of the country hidden in jars of the powdered drink Horlicks, packaging them up with clothes to make what he described as a "family pack".

"I know how to do it," he insisted.

"I've been doing business for this last 10 years. I was 18 years old when I got into this business."

'Not a priority'

We then secretly filmed Harsh Choudhary as he handed over a free sample of the drug to try to encourage us to buy from him.

Despite efforts to crack down on drug crime, the former head of India's Narcotics Control Bureau says he is not surprised that people are managing to get around the law.

Joginder Singh says the country's authorities are currently having to concentrate their resources on tackling terrorism.

"The drugs problem is important but it is not a priority within most of the enforcement organisations," Mr Singh told me.

"Frankly speaking, with a country the size of India, with millions of cargoes [going out] it's easy to slip in one or two containers."

Bladder removed

In the UK, Christopher Francis is coming to the end of a sentence in Ford Open Prison for drug dealing.

He now gives speeches in schools warning about the dangers of drugs - and their impact goes well beyond the threat of jail.

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Media captionChristopher Francis, currently serving time in Ford Open Prison, explains how his use of ketamine led to his bladder having to be removed

A scar on the 22-year-old's stomach is a permanent reminder of the consequences of his ketamine use. The drug so badly damaged his bladder that it had to be surgically removed.

"You start off with stomach cramps and not being able to urinate," he says.

"So you sniff more to try and get rid of the stomach cramps which is why they are there in the first place.

"And then once they pass you start urinating lumps of goo and blood."

Urologists say that much research still needs to be done into the full extent of the harm caused by ketamine but many regular users complain of bladder problems.

"We don't know what the long-term harm will be because we've only been looking at this over the last few years," says Dan Wood, a consultant at University College London Hospitals.

"We have also seen kidney damage and liver damage - what we don't know is whether that is reversible."

Raising awareness

There have also been a small but growing number of deaths linked to ketamine.

Image caption Louise Cattell died in the bath

They tend to be accidents because the hallucinogenic drug leaves people much less aware of their surroundings.

Earlier this year 21-year-old Louise Cattell drowned in the bath after taking ketamine.

Her mother Vicky Unwin is campaigning for a greater awareness of the risks.

"Some of Louise's best friends still use ketamine," Vicky says. "I am actually almost speechless because they loved her and they saw that she died."

In India we go for a final meeting with Harsh Choudhary.

He thinks we are about to agree a deal. But we are there to confront him about his smuggling operation.

He walks away refusing to answer my questions.

"Do you care about the damage ketamine does to people?" I ask.

"No," he replies.

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