Home Message service Mysterious new ketamine-like drug CanKet found at CanTEST sparks call for WA fixed-site pill testing service

Mysterious new ketamine-like drug CanKet found at CanTEST sparks call for WA fixed-site pill testing service


The discovery of a mysterious new recreational drug in Australia, unknown to major drug agencies, has prompted fresh calls for pill testing services to be made available in WA.

Drug addicts have been urged to exercise extreme caution after scientists detected a ketamine-like substance unlike anything they had ever seen before and yet to be ‘toxicologically described’ elsewhere in the world.

The worrying discovery was made by experts from the Australian National University as part of their work with Australia’s first fixed pill testing site, CanTEST, located in Canberra.

It is over there

“Someone presented a small plastic bag of crystals and powder to the testing service,” Professor Malcolm McLeod said.

“They told us they thought it was ketamine, but the effects of the drug were very different from what they expected, so they wanted us to test it.

“But when we tested the substance, it was clear that it was not ketamine, but rather a ketamine-like substance. That’s why we called it CanKet – as in ketamine from Canberra.

“Although we have a clear reading of the chemical structure of the drug, we are still not entirely sure of its effects.

“Our first reaction was ‘whoa, this is really weird’. We have no idea who made the drug or where it came from. But now we know it’s out there.

Camera icon‘CanKet’ sample tested at Australia’s premier fixed pill testing site; CanTEST (image: Malcolm McLeod/ANU). Credit: Malcom McLeod

While the drug shares similar chemical qualities to ketamine, it has a unique composition never before seen in Australia.

Ketamine is usually snorted or injected, but can also be taken by mouth. It provides a powerful high for about an hour and is related to anesthetics, including horse tranquilizers. Common side effects include nightmares, hallucinations, high blood pressure, and confusion. In recreational use, it is also associated with a phenomenon known as “k-hole” – a state of dissociation similar to an out-of-body experience.

Emergency services consultant and clinical drug expert, Associate Professor David Caldicott, said the discovery of CatKet was particularly “baffling” given that even reputable agencies such as the United Nations Office on Drugs and crime and the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction had no data on the substance.

Dr David Caldicott.
Camera iconDr David Caldicott. Credit: NT/Tracey Nearmy/ANU

“This is something quite new, which has never been reported, anywhere, by a drug control service,” he said.

“While it’s fair to say that we understand ketamine as a drug very well, we literally have no other data on the acute or chronic effects of this close cousin. And that’s baffling.

“To assume it’s ‘safe’ because it appears to be related to ketamine would be a misjudgment. “That’s why services like CanTEST are so invaluable. save lives. “

Concern around CanKet has prompted new calls for the expansion of fixed-site pill-testing clinics to other parts of Australia, including WA.

Established in July 2022 as part of a six-month pilot trial, CanTEST is the country’s only stationary drug testing center in Australia.

The ACT Health initiative was launched after analysis at a similar pop-up trial at Canberra’s Groovin’ The Moo festival in 2018 and 2019 found substances containing the potentially deadly MDMA substitute, n -ethylpentylone.

Canberra is the only home to a pill testing service.
Camera iconCanberra is the only home to a pill testing service. Credit: oudmurd – stock.adobe.com

Professor Caldicott said the stigma around pill testing had deterred ministers from establishing sites in their states and territories.

“The evidence is home and watered down. Two independent inquiries provided expertise in NSW and recommended pill testing in NSW,” he said.

“The opposition at the moment is exclusively political, so I would say it is up to our political colleagues to explain why they are right when the experts are wrong.

“We have a standing offer in WA to provide a pill testing service, but last time we visited the idea in WA we were told that pill testing sends the wrong message.

“But the real message the pill tests send is that ‘we think your life is worth watching and we want to keep you safe’.

“It also recognizes the idea that a drug-free Australia is wishful thinking and we need to focus on keeping young people alive as they go through this phase of life.

“The vast majority of young people who dabbled in drugs when they were young don’t end up using drugs for the rest of their lives.”

Pill testing is demonstrated at Australia's first fixed pill testing facility in Canberra.
Camera iconPill testing is demonstrated at Australia’s first fixed pill testing facility in Canberra. Credit: NT/Tracey Nearmy/ANU

WA Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson has been contacted to comment on the prospect of pill testing sites in WA.

A spokesperson commented that: “The McGowan government has no plans to introduce pill testing in Western Australia at this time.

“However, we continue to monitor emerging research on pill testing, including the results of the ACT’s pill testing pilot project.”

The CatTEST pilot program will end at the end of 2022.

In the meantime, Professor Caldicott urged recreational drug users not to be “guinea pigs” and to exercise extreme caution before taking any new drug.

“It’s clear from our testing that what you’re selling is often something other than what it is. Finding CanKet is another level of concern,” he said.

The scientists’ investigations into CanKet continue.