It was a popular party drug in the late 1990s, commonly taken at all-night raves because of its euphoric effects.

But, after a blip in the 2000s, ketamine’s use has once again surged, with usage rates hitting a record high last year.

Police even seized 1.4 tonnes from streets last year, compared to just 3kg 15 years ago.

At the same time, deaths have also soared, sparking warnings that it is ‘a campus killer’ because of its popularity among university students and teenagers.

Yet, according to Ian Hamilton, an addiction expert based at the University of York, special K, is only going to become a bigger problem this year. And, in a piece for MailOnline, he predicts cocaine usage will continue to explode and raises the alarm of synthetic opioids that have flooded the US…

The popularity of illicit drugs like cocaine, heroin and cannabis comes and goes — some become popular while others lose their appeal. Examples of more popular drugs in the last year are laughing gas and cocaine, both widely used among young people.

Predicting which drugs will be popular in the year ahead can be tricky but is possible using various pieces of intelligence. Of course, it’s not just about how widely used a drug is but the damage they inflict on those that use them.

Heroin has been on our streets for decades but there are significant changes coming to the market in 2024. Events thousands of miles away in Afghanistan will directly impact the UK market in the coming year.

The supply of UK heroin has relied on opium grown in Afghanistan. Two years ago, when the Taliban seized control, they vowed to eliminate opium farming. It appears they have been true to their word, and this will have a direct and devastating impact on the market in the UK. Any reserves of heroin that those supplying the UK market had have dried up, meaning they must look for alternatives to ensure uninterrupted supply to the estimated 340,000 people using heroin in England and Wales.

Those supplying illicit drugs like heroin have proved to be highly adaptable and clever when faced with these types of challenges. Alarmingly, the solution they have found is to substitute heroin with synthetic opiates like fentanyl. These types of synthetic drugs have wreaked havoc in America where hundreds of thousands have overdosed annually in recent years.

Fentanyl and other synthetic opiates are many times stronger than heroin, meaning that even experienced users can be caught out by the potency of these drugs, often with fatal consequences. The UK has experienced record number of drug related deaths in recent years, to the point where these deaths have now overtaken road traffic fatalities. The emergence of synthetic opiates in the UK will accelerate these deaths and increase the already high rates of drug related deaths.

Another drug to look out for in 2024 is ketamine. Used in medicine as an anaesthetic for decades, this drug has gained increasing popularity on the black market. Users seek the happiness and feelings of detachment it provides, albeit at lower doses than when it is used as a medicine. This drug has proved to be popular among young people aged 16-24 and there are no signs that this will change in the coming year. We know that supply of illicit ketamine has increased because the police have reported a ten-fold rise in the weight of ketamine seized between 2021 and 2022 alone.

Demand for ketamine has been driven by its affordability and availability, both factors which will drive an increase in its use. Added to this are some high-profile endorsements from the likes of Elon Musk, who has publicly talked about the benefits he has experienced in his private and business life due to ketamine.

Although there are some early-stage medical trials suggesting ketamine could help treat depression and alcohol addiction there is a long way to go before this is conclusive. 

The strict controls used in medical trials are a world apart from the way anyone using the drug illicitly in an attempt to self-medicate. The quality and checking that takes place in trials is not replicated in the black market.

Finally, cocaine is the third drug that poses a major threat in 2024. In a period when incomes are squeezed as they are in the current cost of living crisis cocaine is providing exceptional value for money. Unlike many other products, cocaine is stronger and more affordable than it’s ever been. This has driven the surge in its popularity and will underpin its growth in use in 2024.

The use of cocaine has become normalised among many social groups in recent times as it is no longer viewed just to be a drug for the affluent. As a consequence, we will see increasing problems with overdoses, hospitalisations and other forms of harm as a direct result of using this drug.

It is unusual for a drug to be used on its own, so it is with cocaine. Cocaine and alcohol are often used together, as the stimulating effect of cocaine counters the sedative effect of alcohol. Meaning people can drink for longer and at greater levels. Given the rise in alcohol consumption among some groups in the population and the accompanying popularity of cocaine, the combined risks of using these drugs will be responsible for a surge in harm. When used together the risk of fatal overdose, breathing and heart problems is amplified.

Sadly, our specialist treatment services are not set up to effectively treat people who have problems with drugs like cocaine or ketamine. So, unless there is a radical change in government policy the number of individuals and families that will be impacted by the inevitable rise in deaths will grow. But even or perhaps because we are in an election year neither Labour or the Conservative show no sign of stepping up to the challenge, that’s the real crime.

REVEALED: The most common drugs taken by 16-24 year olds

Cannabis 15.4%

Powder cocaine 5.1%

Nitrous oxide 4.2%

Ketamine 3.8%

Hallucinogens 2.8%

Ecstasy 2.4%

Magic mushrooms 1.9%

LSD 1.5%

New psychoactive substances 1.4%

Tranquillisers 0.9%

% indicates proportion reporting use of the drug in the past year 

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