Ketamine: Destroyer of Scenes, Savior of the Depressed

This week, I want to discuss a substance that has developed a huge global following and staunch defenders on both sides of the Atlantic. Ketamine has become one of the most used substances in the Burner, rave & dance music communities. Whether you’re in London, New York City, Hong Kong, Cairo or Seattle, you’ve seen it diffuse into your scene. A dissociative anesthetic that’s never actually been used on horses, the crystalline powder took many dance floors by storm. In recent years, it’s not just become tethered to dance parties, but to treatment-resistant depression as well, with Ketamine infusion centers popping up at a surprising pace. But first, a little bit of local history.
I can’t speak for how the Ketamine may have filtered into your personal scene, but I can speak about the parties that I cut my teeth on, back during the era that people still thought we’d be greeted as liberators in Iraq. My friends and I first saw the issue when people in the psytrance scene couldn’t find LSD here in the city. While some chose to do 2C-I or roll, others began using this psychedelic powder that seemed to only last 40-60min. The utility of having a powder that only lasted 40min vs. a tab that could last 6-8hrs seemed to be immediately apparent and it started being THE thing.

This continued, to the point where I was hearing about K in Philly, DC, Boston, Baltimore & pretty much everywhere else throwing parties in the Northeast. There was one big issue with Ketamine. It was the exact opposite of a discreet drug. First, it’s usually a nose drug, so you had conspicuous bathroom activity where there was none, which began to draw the attention of security and event staff. When you’ve got bathroom attendants checking to make sure 4 people aren’t walking into a stall together, the people will start to dip into pouches & do bumps in dark corners on the dance floor. Once that happens, it becomes kind of obvious to anyone who isn’t currently on a veterinary anesthetic. This has led to some rather flagrant jokes at the expense of Ketamine users.

Secondly, Ketamine users aren’t exactly social butterflies or big drinkers. This corollary became a huge red flag for producers and venue liasons. Once it became clear you had a large percentage of a community showing up to a party and putting things up their noses while simultaneously not popping bottles, they weren’t having it anymore. People may not like cokeheads, but they’re buying drinks/bottles/VIP tickets while doing their drugs. Ketamine was being done by many people who also rolled or did psychedelics. Psychedelics users spend quite a bit less at the bar, as do broke ravers who are trying to see pretty things without going for a full LSD ride. Combining that with the amplified liability of the Rave Act that showed up in 2003, catering to these communities became a really bad business proposition for venues.

This is why some people say that Ketamine “killed” the psychedelic trance scene here in NYC. You could make a case that something similar happened to the dubstep scene in Philadelphia, but of course, your personal experiences could differ from these trends significantly, so please don’t take this as gospel. If you had similar issues in your scene, feel free to light up the comments, and if any of my elders can compare & contrast it with how cocaine intersected with the last days of disco, that would be very helpful. However, unlike with cocaine, it’s most certainly not all bad.
 Ketamine is one of the only substances in the psychiatrist’s armamentarium that has been shown to quickly & durably assist in helping patients with what’s known as treatment-resistant depression. This isn’t the emo kid who has been whining for months, this is for the patient who has tried 5 different SSRIs, meditation, CBT & nothing has worked to alleviate the disabling symptoms of Unipolar Depression, more commonly known as Major Depressive Disorder.
Clinical trials are ongoing but results are very promising so far. Because it’s classified as an “essential medicine” by the UN for its effects as a painkiller, doctors are able to prescribe it off-label, without waiting for the pesky research results to come in. For example, one kid told VICE how many drugs they’d done hoping they’d help:
I’ve been on Prozac, Wellbutrin, Zoloft, Paxil, Geodon, Zyprexa, Effexor, just about all of them. In my 20s, doctors would treat my anxiety with Valium, Xanax, and other addictive benzodiazepines. Sleep is essential for humans and not getting enough of it can become a nightmare. That’s why may be able to help. I was failing all of my classes in college because I couldn’t concentrate, so my doctor diagnosed me with ADD as well and prescribed Ritalin for it.
And this isn’t just at medium size websites looking for clicks. When Ketamine gets a feature in Nature, like it did in January, you know this is being taken seriously by the medical community. Looking at the studies completed at the National Institute of Mental Health, Yale & Mount Sinai here in NYC, the results have been stunningly positive. Oxford reported that 1/3 of the treatment-resistant depression saw an immediate benefit. The mainstream media has taken notice, with the New York Times, the Washington Post & Al-Jazeera America doing stories on ketamine treatment for depression.  Modern research is dissecting the combination of drugs found in regular ketamine, separating them & evaluating them in isolation to learn even more about Ketamine.
While I think it has tremendous potential to help people get out of some of the darkest depressive states, we cannot ignore the fact that the drug can be dangerous. And not just because I hate people parking on the dance floor. In October 2013, it was reported that heavy/daily users of Ketamine had exposed themselves to completely unknown side effects of Ketamine that were much worse than previously understood. As quoted by Telegraph:
A new phenomenon of users taking “grand quantities” of the party drug every day has revealed a “completely unexpected harm” to bladders, he told an open meeting of the ACMD, the body which advises the government on the classification and control of drugs.
These side effects include the need to have one’s bladder removed, even people in their early 20’s. This “life sentence” as described, has been amplified by the drug culture surrounding ketamine, especially in the UK. The problem is lessened somewhat here in the states, but if you know someone that’s doing the stuff daily, they may need some help.
It’s easy for privileged people to complain about people at their parties who enjoy Ketamine, but the subject is far more complex, and we need to treat it that way. It is at the same time, both the best novel treatment for hardened depression on the planet and a drug that has ruined the lives of thousands across the Western world. We need to study this drug in greater detail, and communicate the benefits & the risks to the worldwide population of users. Thanks for helping with that aim.

8 comments on “Ketamine: Destroyer of Scenes, Savior of the Depressed

  1. Oh my god can we please dispense of the myth it was used on horses originally? It was developed for humans, is still used on humans, and also used on mostly small animals like dogs and cats because they don’t complain of hallucinations

  2. Terry – great article. I’m inspired to throw in my 2 cents, as a toxicologist. Ketamine’s effects are highly dose dependent (as I’m sure you’re aware). The doses being used for refractory depression also vary and there’s no consensus on what the best regimen is. You’ll widely see this reported as “sub anesthetic” doses, but that’s not really a useful term (especially for a disassociative, where some awareness is possible, and often expected). Another consideration is bioavailability – ketamine IV or IM is very different in its absorption via the nasal route. I think the take home is that if you’re looking for a cure to your depression in the bathroom of a club, you might want to see a physician. I.m glad you mentioned the risk of hemorrhagic cystitis with ketamine – whether it’s truly from the ketamine or from an additive/impurity is a topic of hot debate, but the problem is definitely real and definitely horrible.

    One thing your anesthetic facts has wrong though – ketamine is GREAT for hemodynamically unstable patients, in fact it’s most often used in trauma patients (provided they don’t have a brain injury, since it raises cerebral metabolic rate and cerebral blood flow). Unlike most sedative medications it has a sympathomimetic action, raising your heart rate and blood pressure through catecholamine release.

  3. Ever tried Salvia? I don’t recommend it unless you’re a very experienced tripper. Even then, Salvia can be a very daunting and totally out of control experience. It can also be hazardous as people frequently start walking like zombies and fall and hit their heads.

    • Yep. Standing up is not recommended when doing salvia. Hell, I don’t even recommend sitting – unless it’s in dad’s Easy Boy recliner while he and mom are away for the weekend.

      Oh, and be careful if you decide to go gardening on the stuff.

  4. The shit is toxic. That could be said about all designer drugs, but the downsides of K are FAR more dire than any other designer drug I can think of. Plus, as you state, people on K are fucking zombies and totally spoil the vibe.

  5. Why would anyone do this shit? Life is real fucking short, and the human body isn’t made to withstand toxic crap. I’m undergoing a lot of medical tests at the moment for regular old NON-drug induced health problems – and I wish so bad I was healthy and OK. Why do people willingly send their body to crap town? Their bladders get removed?! WTH? I hope all those users wake the F up.

  6. Acid was an adventure, E was a long fantastic honeymoon. Cocaine had it mostly good moments. But K… such a dissociative. I can be in the room with people doing any type of drug, even people smoking opium – I’m totally fine with. People on K give me the creeps and ruin whatever high I’m on. Maybe that’s just me, but forge K unless everyone in the room is doing it and the doors are locked and the phones are disconnected. .

Leave a Reply