Sometime during the night of Sunday, July 21, someone climbed onto the roof of the Chattahoochee Animal Clinic in Roswell, tore off a roof vent, crawled through the attic and used a crowbar to pry open a floor safe containing the vet's cache of drugs.
They seem to have taken Pharmacology 101: In addition to computers, a guitar and other valuables, the perps snatched bottles of painkillers, phenobarbitol and stanozolol, a horse steroid prized by gym monkeys for building muscle mass. But it's likely those were simply afterthoughts; the thieves clearly were there for the vet's small store of "Special K."
Ketamine, also whimsically known as "cat Valium," is an animal anesthetic that produces psychedelic visions when taken by humans, and it's made veterinary clinics across the country the improbable targets of burglaries by highly focused thieves. Whoever broke into the Roswell clinic last week wore gloves so they wouldn't leave fingerprints, and succeeded in not tripping the alarm until they were on their way out the door, says Dr. Andy Morton, who opened the clinic 20 years ago.
Morton hadn't used ketamine regularly for the past five years, but was forced to order a couple of bottles recently when his usual anesthetic was unavailable, he says. The timing of the burglary suggests an insider tip from a vet employee, something Morton doesn't like to consider.
The street trade in Special K has been so under-the-radar in metro Atlanta in recent years that Fulton County's head narcotics cop, Lt. K. Hester, concedes that most of his officers wouldn't recognize it if they saw it. Neither he, Atlanta police nor the Georgia Bureau of Investigation say they've heard of other veterinary clinics having been hit for the drug; seizures of the drug have been "very rare" in metro Atlanta, says GBI spokesman John Bankhead.
But Rick Allen, deputy director of the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency, which maintains direct contact with Georgia's vets and pharmacies, says the state is in the midst of a wave of ketamine-related thefts.
"We hear about a vet break-in every other week or so," he says. "Just recently, the Humane Society in Tifton was burglarized and had several bottles of ketamine stolen. It's becoming routine."
But the problem has already been routine in a number of other states, mostly in the Midwest and New York, where vet burglaries began surfacing about five years ago and became so common that the federal Drug Enforcement Agency was pushed to name ketamine a Schedule III controlled substance, meaning it is frequently abused.
Although ketamine was developed in the '60s as a safer alternative to existing anesthetic drugs, it was soon abandoned for medical use in humans after it was discovered that it induces hallucinations, similar to LSD. Of course, that realization only made it more desirable as a mind-altering substance.
These days, the drug has found a niche among self-medicating ravers, who often use its sedative properties to chill out after tripping on X, or ecstasy. Since it usually leaves its consumer unconscious in the corner, it's understandably an end-of-the-evening treat, but when he wakes up, he'll typically have a psychedelic buzz for an hour or so.
Although the drug is relatively inexpensive, it's only available from vets, so would-be dealers have to get more creative than faking a prescription.
Earlier this month, the DEA sent out a warning that some enterprising thieves had launched a scam in which they call around to vets, telling them that a recall of ketamine has been ordered and can they be so good as to say how many bottles they've got and where exactly the clinic is located?
"I wouldn't be too surprised if that works sometimes," laughs Allen. "If you call up a pharmacy and ask them how much oxycontin [a powerful painkiller] they have on hand, they'll slam the phone down in your ear, but most vets haven't learned to become that suspicious."