Not everyone finishes their post-university year out as an international ketamine smuggler. But then, having spent a couple of undergrad years buying in bags of pills for raves – both to facilitate the party and to ensure that he never ran out of his personal stash – “Gav” was well placed to sniff out a commercial opportunity in the narcotics sector.
Back in the mid-1990s, Buy ketamine liquid was still almost completely under the radar, on both sides of the law. “Your standard gangsters tend to be psycho wankers,” says Gav. “They tried to muscle in on it but didn’t have a clue what they were doing. Even the language was different: litres to kilos, volume not weight.” More importantly, because it was still classed under the Medicines Act rather than Misuse of Drugs, the police were equally clueless. “Someone I know got arrested with a load, in powder form, and they had to spell it out to them what it was. Literally spell the word out. A couple of weeks later the police phoned them up and said, ‘You can come and collect your property.’ That’s how legal it was – the police were giving it back to you back!”
Gav – whose name has been changed because he agreed to speak to VICE on the condition of anonymity – had come across K on the London squat party scene, buying a liter for around £500 in 1996, selling (most of) it on as 50 individual grams, for around £30 a hit. “Hardly big business,” he recalls, “but a good boost to your income when you’re on the dole after university. Plus, your main expense for the weekend is paid for.”
The first opportunity to upscale came when some friends went to Goa for a two-week break which eventually turned into a six-month stay. Back then – as is still the case today – India was the world’s biggest producer of ketamine, manufacturing tons of the drug for legitimate medical and veterinary use. Unlike today, the drug was easily bought from factories and chemists. Gav’s friends saw an opportunity, and asked Gav if he’d mind receiving a parcel from them. They gave him a litre for his troubles, which he found out had cost just £100 at source. “I said: ‘That’s £2 a gram! Jesus, that’s a lot of mark-up! Do you want to go back? Can I come?!'” A month later he was on a plane with a friend, sourcing a cheap charter flight from Teletext.
In those halcyon early days it was all a new frontier, the ketamine trade very much a cottage industry. “At one time, pretty much the entire European supply came from one person, one tiny little shop at the side of the road in Goa,” Gav recalls. “Somebody discovered you could buy it at the chemists and no one would ask any questions. It was being manufactured in Mumbai as an anaesthetic.”
On those first trips, Gav and his start-up associate would buy “around a grand’s worth, maybe £1,500”, sending back 10 to 15 litres via the tiny local DHL office. The K came in large boxes of sterile 10-millilitre vials, which would be opened and the contents painstakingly transferred to litre bottles of rosewater. “Getting the liquid out of glass vials and into the rosewater bottles was extremely time-consuming,” says Gav. “It was an absolute mission in the early days – you’d end up with both your hands bleeding. Getting the liquid in a cut hand was really fucking painful – quite ironic for a painkiller, really.”
No one was entirely certain why rosewater bottles were used to smuggle the liquid ketamine back to the UK, but Gav had a theory: “I didn’t invent the whole rosewater thing – it was always a bit mysterious who did. But it said on the bottle that it was used for various things, including ‘religious purposes’. This meant there was no import tax on it, so it was never stopped at customs. Winner!”
Once the bottling and delivery had been taken care of, next there was waste disposal to consider, which could at times become quite slapstick: “You can’t just throw it all in the bin, because it’s all quite incriminating. So you’ve got to find a way to get rid of this rubbish. Someone found a big hole in the ground somewhere – an unfinished construction site in the middle of the jungle. You’d drive off the road and turn your moped headlights off, because you didn’t want anyone to see what you were doing. You can’t see anything – not just because it’s dark, but because you’re off your head as well – and you’re lugging this big hessian sack full of tiny glass bottles, in the jungle, in the dark, while high, with monkeys and snakes to contend with, looking for a big hole in the ground, which was also dark, and you’re trying not to fall down the hole yourself – no pun intended. It was helpful when there was a good moon, actually.”