The £3-a-hit drug sweeping Britain's universities and a mother's story that ... trends now
For Jeni Larmour's 21st birthday in May, her mother Sandra organised a family lunch at a local restaurant. There was a chinking of glasses to toast the birthday girl and a brightly coloured balloon that read '21 Today'.
But tragically, there was a space at the table where Jeni should have been. The balloon that should have marked a young woman's coming of age was later placed at her gravestone, along with flowers from her many friends.
Because mere hours after arriving at Newcastle University in October 2020, Jeni, an architecture and urban-planning student who wanted to 'change the world', collapsed and died in her halls after taking ketamine.
She was just 18. At the inquest into her death, her mother said the drug had been supplied by another student, Kavir Kalliecharan. He initially claimed Jeni had provided him with the ketamine, before admitting possession. He denied being a supplier.
'It's nearly three years ago, but for me the pain is every day,' says Sandra, 50, an HR officer from County Armagh. 'There's no point even saying I think about her morning, noon and night because she's always at the forefront of my mind in everything that I do.
For Jeni Larmour's 21st birthday in May, her mother Sandra organised a family lunch at a local restaurant. There was a chinking of glasses to toast the birthday girl and a brightly coloured balloon that read '21 Today'
'As I drive home, if I see two birds in the sky, I'll think, 'That's me and Jeni flying about together.' If I see a rainbow, I'll say, 'Jeni has sent me that today.' On events like her birthday I do as much as I can to decorate her grave as I would her party. When I had my own 50th in May we sat around and said, 'Jeni should be here.'
'My sister gave birth to twins and they will never know Jeni. The heartbreak and the pain inside... it's like a hidden disability that I have to deal with daily.'
Ketamine – also known as 'Special K' or 'ket' – is, according to experts, the 'new ecstasy' among students. Used by vets as an anaesthetic, the white or pinkish powder is often referred to as a horse tranquilliser but it's also widely used as a prescription painkiller or sedative for humans.
And its popularity among the young as a recreational drug is growing. Crucially, for cash-strapped students, it is relatively cheap, costing as little as £3 for a dose.
'Ketamine gives an instant high and is used and abused on the party scene, particularly among the younger generation, including university students,' says Martin Preston, addiction specialist and chief executive of private rehab clinic Delamere.
'A lot of people believe it is less harmful than other substances because it is hard to develop a physical dependence on it. But while that's true, some users develop a tolerance so they need larger doses.
'Large amounts of ketamine can also have a powerful hallucinogenic effect, sometimes referred to as entering a 'K-hole'. This can make a person temporarily unable to interact with the world around them, due to the drug's dissociative effects, meaning users may feel detached from reality, which can be extremely dangerous.
'Ketamine abuse can also cause vomiting, heart problems and, if taken in frequent high doses, it can also cause the bladder to shrink. In some cases the damage is so severe that it is irreversible and a person may require a bag to bypass the bladder. When ketamine is mixed with alcohol it can increase the risk of heart attack, overheating and, in extreme circumstances, death.'
Today, as tens of thousands of young people head away from home – some for the first time – to university and college halls, it seems that they may be particularly vulnerable to the drug. Earlier this year, figures from the National Programme On Substance Abuse Deaths at St George's Hospital in South London showed that nearly one in ten people killed by ketamine is a student, yet among deaths from all drugs they make up less than one in 50 victims. The median age of death from ketamine is 29, while for all drug deaths it is 39.
Harris Khan, 24, was part of a drugs gang who were snared in an undercover police operation after they continued dealing following the death of three students have been jailed
Thomas Ibbotson, 21, was also part of the same gang Kahn was involved with
Faisal Ahmed, 21, was also arrested following the death of the student
Sandra, who is now helping universities and schools to educate young people and children about the dangers of ketamine, says her daughter's death has left a gaping hole in her family. 'Jeni was full of life with a big booming laugh, and people were drawn to her, she was like a magnet,' she says.
'She was really looking forward to starting her degree. We'd flown into Newcastle on the Thursday and chilled and watched a video and lay up on the bed chatting. On the Friday we went to the shops to buy household stuff and a few clothes for her new life at university. I dropped her off at 20 to five, and she was so excited to be going out with her new friends.
'As I was walking back to the hotel where I was staying close by, I remember thinking, 'Yes, this place is going to be great for Jeni.' I was really happy for her. I didn't realise that three hours and 20 minutes later my daughter would be lying unconscious and no one would be helping her.
'Next morning she wasn't answering her phone or texts. About 11.30am the police phoned and said they were coming to talk to me.
'My first thought was that Jeni would sort out whatever the problem was. But deep down I knew.
'My heart was pounding, and when I opened the door and saw the police officers' faces, all I could say was, 'Don't even say it!'
'I had been a ten-minute walk away from my daughter and she was lying there all that time. How could life turn around so quickly?'
Sandra discovered Jeni had gone out with friends but returned to her room at about 8pm to fetch her ID to allow her into pubs and clubs. She believes that what happened next could easily have been prevented.
'Jeni and I never really talked about drugs. She would say things like, 'Don't be silly Mammy, I wouldn't do that,' so I think that she had gone back to her room in all innocence to collect her ID and then had been