Ketamine robberies plague Philadelphia clinics

Published on September 01, 2001
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An alarming number of veterinary clinics continue to be targeted by thieves seeking ketamine, a drug prized on the club scene for its euphoric and hallucinatory effects. A rash of armed robberies at clinics in the Philadelphia area between May and July has the veterinary community there improving security and rethinking their business practices. No one was seriously injured.

Ketamine abuse is on the rise, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Known on the streets as Special K and K, ketamine is one of several "club drugs" common at rave parties. Because of the frequency of abuse and potential for addiction, the DEA in 1999 classified ketamine as a schedule III drug, requiring more rigid control and record keeping at clinics that stock it.

Most ketamine sold illicitly comes from veterinary clinics, the DEA said. Although there are no national statistics for drug-motivated robberies at veterinary clinics, a trend is apparent. Such robberies have been reported in Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland. Last year, Illinois police broke up a ketamine theft ring believed to be responsible for robberies at clinics throughout the Midwest (see JAVMA, March 1, 2000, page 648).

More recently, four clinics were robbed in Philadelphia over a three-month period: two in May, the others in June and July, according to Dr. Raj Khare, a small animal practitioner in the city and president of the Keystone VMA. Thieves also struck one clinic in the area earlier this year, he said. The robberies followed a similar pattern: one or more people show up with a sickly looking dog, usually without an appointment. Ketamine is then demanded from the veterinarian at gunpoint.

Dr. Fred Mishrikey's small animal clinic in suburban Philadelphia was robbed in July. His wife, Miriam Mishrikey, who works at the clinic, said two men came during the afternoon wanting treatment for a Poodle. After the dog was examined, one of the men drew a gun and demanded all the ketamine in the clinic, Mishrikey said. She instead directed them to a cabinet containing 17 bottles of Telazol, which is packaged like ketamine.

The men bound the Mishrikeys with duct tape to chairs, also taping their mouths. Before they fled out a back door with the Telazol, Mishrikey said, one of the men told them, "We didn't harm you, we didn't hurt you. Please forgive us." Mishrikey managed to free herself and call the police. Three men have been arrested for the robbery; one of them allegedly drove the getaway vehicle, according to Mishrikey. Police suspect the men are responsible for the four robberies.

"Honest to God, I thought he [was going] to shoot both of us," Mishrikey said, and added that she and her husband are still shaken up. They have since installed alarms and a surveillance camera at the clinic, and the couple now wear panic alarms around their necks.

Veterinary clinics can be easy targets for criminals looking for drugs, said Sgt. Roland Lee of the Philadelphia Police Department Public Information Office.

After the Mishrikey robbery, local veterinarians attending the monthly meeting of the Keystone VMA in July worried for their own safety. "They're scared," Dr. Khare said about the practitioners' mood. At the meeting, a police representative suggested ways practitioners could safeguard their clinics. Dr. Khare advised adoption of an appointment-only policy and use of client history forms. He also recommended installing surveillance cameras and panic buttons.

Ketamine users say the drug's effects are better than that of PCP and LSD because its hallucinatory effects are brief, lasting an hour or less. It is snorted or placed in alcoholic drinks, or can be taken with other drugs—a practice known as polydrugging—such as marijuana and Ecstasy. Because of its anesthetic properties, ketamine is one of the "date rape" drugs that are slipped into a person's drink, rendering them unconscious.

Taken in high doses, ketamine can be fatal. Forty-six ketamine-related deaths were reported between 1994 and 1998, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network, a national drug abuse surveillance system that monitors emergency room visits and deaths attributable to drug abuse.