The secret life of Ketamine

It began life as a medicine and anaesthetic, but recreational use caught on quickly – it was available, inexpensive and promised unpredictable journeys into other dimensions. What should a tempted experimenter know about Ketamine? Emily Wright investigates, with illustrations by Melanie Tahata.

Many people’s understanding of Ketamine amounts to something like a memory of a man passing out on top of their tent at a music festival while they were inside it, followed by a friend of his muttering, ‘Sorry, too much Special K,’ while leading him off to a safe place. This sort of experience, along with the oft-repeated, ‘Horse tranquiliser, isn’t it?’ seems baffling in the face of Ketamine’s widespread popularity. According to Morgan, Muetzelfeldt and Curran’s recent research on Ketamine use, cognition and psychological well-being, Ketamine use has increased from 3.9% to 16% among club users in recent years.

Emerging from anaesthesia

Melanie Tahata - ketamine emerging from anaesthesia illustration

Used as an anaesthetic for soldiers in the Vietnam War, Ketamine soon became a wanted street commodity.

According to Karl Jansen’s book, Ketamine: dreams and realities, Ketamine was first manufactured by American pharmacist Calvin Stevens in 1962 and owned by the American company Parke Davis. Used as an anaesthetic for soldiers in the Vietnam War and in hospitals and laboratories in the 1960s, it soon became a wanted street commodity around the world.

Hitting first the New Age American psychonauts (those who partake in the use of psychotropic drugs), notably astrologer and yoga teacher Marcia Moore and psychoanalyst Dr John C Lilly in the 1970s, and spreading slowly around the world, the out-of-body and near-death experiences described by people coming out of anaesthesia became too tempting for the curious to resist. According to www.drugs-forum.com, the dance culture of the 1980s saw a significant rise in the use of Ketamine, from Goa to Ibiza to the street scene of Russia. It is supposed that Ketamine was largely obtained through theft from hospitals, care centres and veterinary surgeries, often by inside sources. Ketamine, generally sold as a powder or liquid, only became a schedule III drug at federal level across the US in 1999, classified as Class A in Canada in 2005 and Class C in the UK in 2006.

‘The out-of-body and near-death experiences described by people coming out of anaesthesia became too tempting for the curious to resist.’

Strange effects

Melanie Tahata - ketamine insuflation illustration

Ketamine is usually sold as a powder, which is insuflated (snorted), swallowed (bombed) or rarely, injected

Ketamine’s dosage determines its effects. At low doses (10–20 mg), it provides pain relief and is an effective anaesthetic. Recently, a team of researchers led by Hussein Manji at the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland found that Ketamine regulates levels of glutamate in the brain, which, if exacerbated, can cause depression. According to Nature Magazine in 2006, Manji and other doctors Zarate and Krystal, propose that Ketamine be considered in the treatment of depression.

Ketamine is used in vets and hospitals around the world as an anaesthetic, and in palliative care – the care of people where recovery is not expected – as a form of pain relief. At doses of over 100mg, the user can enter otherworldly states, such as out-of-body experiences (OBEs) and even near-death experiences (NDEs). These experiences have been extensively researched by Drs Karl Jansen and Ornella Corazza. Their books, Ketamine: dreams and realities, and Near death experiences: exploring the mind-body connection respectively, provide fascinating insights into the world of the Ketamine user, making it clear that Ketamine is a unique drug. There are many correlating accounts of users experiencing a bright light at the end of the tunnel, a trip to the riverside which has no bridge to cross or a meeting with God. Feelings of oneness, well-being, of no distinction between opposites, of being dead or alive are all recurrent themes.

‘Ketamine was largely obtained through theft from hospitals, care centres and veterinary surgeries, often by inside sources.’

An infrequent user wrote me his own account of an experience of Ketamine:

‘My current life is a happy one, filled with hedonistic pleasures and disobedience of the status quo, so to be greeted by a God-like figure whilst engaged in sexual deeds with a friend was a most unexpected experience. My God was facially androgynous in appearance – a gorgeous mix of female and male beauty, in what I can only describe as the most beautiful face I have ever set eyes on. Alas, my God left my vision after around a 10 or 20 seconds, but enough to envelop me in a soothing amber glow for the remainder of our sexual liaison. I have never experienced in the 15 years or so that I have experimented with narcotics something quite so profound.’

This experience is positive one. Like all drugs, others report negative experiences, such as this woman in her 20s:

‘As soon as I had snorted the stuff, I felt a kind of nervous energy, and my mind melded into my surroundings. The fluffy carpet I was staring at intently became very interesting to look at, the darker shades next to the white ones. I went down a tunnel into the carpet itself, and couldn’t see my friends anywhere. I started to panic, and wanted to be close to someone, but it seemed I was on my own. I couldn’t wait to get back to the party I had come to, and wished I had never taken it. I couldn’t decide whether I was dead or alive, whether it was night or day. I was lost. I don’t think I want to lose control like that again.’

Melanie Tahata - ketamine K-hole illustration

Users refer to dissociative experiences which take them down a tunnel through patterns, ‘entering a K-hole’

Users call these dissociative experiences which take them down a tunnel through patterns, ‘entering a K-hole’. They can last up to an hour. Two minutes following a large dose – snorted, or rarely, injected – impaired vision and lack of judgement of distances may lead the user to fall over and hit the ground, or indeed, someone else’s tent like our aforementioned fellow at the music festival. This can of course be dangerous, so it is recommended that the recreational Ketamine user have a friend present to assist, if necessary. Notorious narcotics experimenter Dr John Lilly had once fallen into a river, from which he was luckily fished out, which had perhaps inspired him to invent a safe place that he called the Lilly tank from which he would enjoy his K-hole.

Ketamine, addiction and health
Curran and Monaghan investigated the acute and residual effects of Ketamine in frequent and infrequent users. They found out that temporary episodic and semantic memory loss may last for up to three days after use, but no evidence of lasting effects. Morgan, Muetzelfeldt and Curran also found no differences in brain activity between frequent and infrequent Ketamine users. Short term psychological effects they noted included increased levels of delusion and dissociation, which disappeared after cessation. Some sites like ketamine.com, ketaminebladdersyndrome.com and www.drugnet.net warn that Ketamine may be a precursor to schizophrenia, paranoia and organ damage. Similarly, some sites such as www.drugnet.net and www.clearhavencenter.com warn of Ketamine addiction. Researchers have found out that Ketamine is not physically addictive, but may be psychologically addictive. D M Turner, who recorded his experiences on Ketamine in The essential psychedelic guide said, ‘Since (a previous time) I’ve used Ketamine only occasionally, but find that I must continually exercise a high degree of will power to prevent myself from falling into a pattern of regular use. Amongst those I know who use K, I have seen very few who can use it in a balanced manner if they have access to it.’

‘Dr John Lilly had once fallen into a river, from which he was luckily fished out, which had perhaps inspired him to invent a safe place that he called the Lilly tank from which he would enjoy his K-hole.’

A good or bad trip
Dr Jansen mentions that the setting (ie, the place where the drug is taken) and the mood of the user are important in determining whether the trip will be a positive or negative experience. He also mentions that the likelihood of users reporting a tunnel experience,

Melanie Tahata - ketamine stumbling horse illustration

Impaired vision and lack of judgement of distances may lead the user to fall over and hit the ground

or repetitive visions of bright patterns could be because those things are the last things they see before they go into their K-hole: wallpaper, a friend’s dreadlocks, a pattern on the floor. If the experience is negative, it could be that the user’s setting is dark, and their mood is too, before taking the drug. When asked about whether he thought that Ketamine use alongside clubbing was a good idea, Dr Lilly responded negatively. ‘When all of those around you are dancing, and you are on the floor, tripping into another dimension, the context is very mixed.’

www.drugs-forum.com warns that Ketamine can be ‘cut’ (mixed) with other substances, such as salt, sugar or caffeine. You must be aware that the intense trip you have may last up to an hour, but the effects of feeling high may not wear off for three days, according to Curran and Monaghan.

Researching this article has made Ketamine’s widespread popularity more understandable to me; there’s clearly more to it than its nickname ‘horse tranquiliser’ would suggest. If you are tempted to try Ketamine, make an informed decision by reading widely, follow the safety advice and try not fall on anyone else’s tent.

If you decide to try Ketamine
Do

  • Have a good friend present who will stay with you throughout your trip
  • Make sure you are feeling good, not emotional or tired
  • Be in a safe place
  • Be aware that the trip is likely to last an hour or so
  • Be aware of the possible negative side-effects

Don’t

  • Do Ketamine if you feel uncertain
  • Take too much at once – measure your dose and if unsure, take less than you think you’ll need
  • Take Ketamine with other drugs or alcohol
  • Take more if you are already having a feeling of uncertainty
  • Expect it to make you dance

Author Emily Wright is a teacher of English, the mother of a small fearless child and an occasional contributor to Love is the law online magazine. Find out more about illustrator Melanie Tahata at www.aotearoa666.com.

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