Scientists in Canberra have discovered a new recreational drug with a chemical structure similar to that of ketamine, an anesthetic used by medical professionals. The new substance, which has been named “CanKet” (Canberra ketamine), was discovered at CanTEST, Australia’s first face-to-face government-supported pill-testing centre that was created as a trial in earlier in 2022.
According to Associate Prof Malcolm McCleod at the Australian National University (ANU), someone brought in a small plastic bag of crystals and powder to get tested at CanTEST, since they initially thought the drug was ketamine, but experienced unexpected side effects.
“We have a couple of techniques on site to test for ketamine and we can be really sure of the results. It was clear this wasn’t ketamine, but rather a ketamine-like substance,” said Dr. McLeod in his interview with The Guardian. “That’s why we have called it ‘CanKet,’ he added. “This is new for Australia. As far as we’re aware, this is the first detection of a new drug by a drug-checking service anywhere in the world.”
So far, researchers have found nothing in the scientific literature about CanKet, aside from one research article from a Chinese forensic lab. “It’s so new we just don’t have information we can provide to people about this drug,” said Dr. McLeod. “Nothing is known about the clinical effects on the consumer, and being something new, we urge caution. You can make quite small changes to a drug and see quite dramatic changes to its effects.”
So far, ANU and CanTEST teams have shared their findings with ACT Health, as well as with the UN Office of Drug Control and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. “My suspicion is that this is produced overseas in a jurisdiction where the laws around the production of chemicals like this are not prohibited yet,” Dr. McLeod said. “I think it’s important that we keep the community safe and this shows the value of pill-testing services in doing that. We have been able to find a new substance and provide information to people in a timely matter, whereas government agencies and drug laws can take a while to catch up.”
CanKet has been appearing across Canberra, according to ANU Associate Professor David Caldicott. “It‘s turning up quite frequently now in Canberra, but it’s not turning up anywhere else,” he said. “It’s one that hasn’t really been seen with human consumption before, it’s only been identified on two occasions before, one in a Chinese lab and one on the Canadian border.”
Moreover, Dr. Caldicott added that this discovery demonstrates why the CanTEST testing facility has been “invaluable” to the community. “It allows us to identify never before seen drugs, as well as common drugs, and provide people who use the service clear guidance on the likely health and other effects of these drugs. This can potentially save lives.”