Ketamine: Trick or treat?
First published: The Face, June 1992

(c) Peter McDermott

"Ecstasy hinted at how powerful the mind could be, and once first gear 
was mastered, there was a second gear, and a third.
Compared to MDMA, Vitamin K was tenth gear."
Jay Stevens, Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream.

LSD seemed just right for the sixties. It's appearance coincided with an 
economic boom and in ideological crisis. For many, the drug was a 
catalyst, but the the changes that acid produced were shaped by wider 
influences. It didn't matter if you saw God, quit your job and took the 
journey to India. There were plenty more jobs to come back to when you 
spent all your money and caught hepatitis. At the time, some   people 
believed that the drug had changed their lives immeasurably, that they 
had gained profound insights into the human condition, but by and 
large, the major impact of LSD was cultural. The drug created a new 
style, a new language. It also created new markets and that style was 
appropriated by hip young entrepreneurs and used to shift new 
products to the new drug subculture. 

The era also gave birth to a whole array of new social problems. As 
users got bored with acid, methedrine came along to take it's place.  
Over the last five years, Ecstasy has had an even bigger impact. During 
1990 and 1991 it seemed anybody who ever smoked a joint was taking 
Ecstasy. As in the sixties, many people felt that the drug had 
transformed their lives. 

And to some extent, perhaps it did. MDMA does produce a euphoric state. 
For a couple of hours a week, the problems that confront young people 
in Thatcher's Britain, the problems of class and race and gender 
differences, the difficulty of negotiating safe sex in the shadow of AIDS, 
that sense of being alienated and alone -- all were temporarily resolved 
while in clubs and warehouses, marquees and beaches, service stations 
and open fields all across the country, hundreds of thousands of people 
synchronized their psychic and emotional states and began to dance. 

Raving resembled a huge, religious ritual, and like other such rituals it 
gave many people an insight into a transcendental state. Yet the 
bargain that we make with drugs may well have a Faustian quality. 
When a new drug arrives in a society, it is like an infant taking a 
screwdriver to a clock. Perhaps we can take it apart, but can we put the 
thing back together again. This was the mystery behind the biblical 
account of the Fall. Forbidden knowledge often has a great cost.

Ecstasy first hit the UK in a big way around 1988. Five years later, 
people are just beginning to recognize that there are problems 
associated with the drug. The physical and psychological problems may 
or may not be fewer and less serious than the problems associated with 
other drugs, but who knows what kind of problems the cultural changes 
will produce?

For the last few years, the papers have been full of stories about Love 
Doves, Disco Biscuits and Dennis the Menaces, and now they bring you 
Special K, Vitamin K, Kit-Kat?  Journalists, desperate to break the story 
on the latest trend in designer drugs are desperately hyping Ketamine 
as the drug to take over from Ecstasy.

Until last year, virtually nothing was known about Ketamine in the UK. 
The is that the drug is a general anaesthetic with analgesic properties, 
produced by Parke-Davies and marketed as Ketalar. Because the drug is 
less likely to depress the respiratory system, it has been marketed as 
particularly useful for young children, and the aged. However, they 
take it under controlled conditions, while their heart, blood pressure, 
and respiration is being monitored -- not in a nightclub in unknown 

So where did the drug appear from? According to Jay Stevens, 
investigation into the psychedelic drugs has continued unbroken since 
the sixties. In the USA a loose network of people who Stevens terms 'the 
neuro-consciousness frontier' have continued to systematically explore 
the effects of mind altering drugs upon the human psyche. As the laws 
were changed to prohibit the use of certain tools, they moved into other 
substances that were still within the law. Anyway, by the time Stevens 
book was published in 1987, the network had devised or discovered a 
whole new pharmacopoeia with strange sounding names. Names like 
Adam, Eve, Venus, Intellex and 2CB. Stevens asked many of his sources, 
what was their tip for the top, and the two drugs that kept coming up 
most frequently were MDMA (Ecstasy) and Ketamine.

The Psychedelics Encyclopedia lists nine families of different 
psychedelic drugs. The family that includes Ecstasy, the 
phenylethylamines, has almost 200 different member drugs. Ketamine 
isn't even a member of any of the nine families. The drug it most 
closely resembles is PCP, an animal tranquilliser. Now there's a 
recommendation. If speed will turn you into your parents, PCP might 
turn you into James Brown. This is a  drug that makes people seriously 
psychotic. All that those LA police officers had to say to get acquitted of 
beating Rodney King was they believed he had been using PCP. Not 
guilty. The jury believe that they used the tools that were necessary to 
keep him under control.

Californian neuroscientist John Lilly may have done most to bring 
Ketamine to our attention. Lilly is the man responsible for such crucial 
scientific breakthroughs as the invention of the isolation tank and 
communication between human beings and dolphins. The model for the 
character in the film, "Altered States", Lilly in his autobiographical 
novel, "The Scientist", tells how he was given the drug by a doctor to 
cure a recurring migraine. He found that K allowed him to "look across 
the border into other realities" and went on to take the drug every day 
for one hundred days. Talk about using a sledge-hammer to crack a nut!

Lilly believes that while he was in the 'K state', he made repeated 
contact with extraterrestrials, the beings who manage Earth 
Coincidence Control, your local branch of Cosmic Coincidence Control. 
These entities are placed on earth to manage coincidences in such a way 
as to inch us gradually along the evolutionary path, and while on 
Ketamine, Lilly was able to communicate with these extraterrestrials, 
who informed him that they had removed DNA samples from Earth and 
transported them to another planet. There, they proceeded to 
genetically engineer all of Earth's large-brained mammals - primates, 
dolphins and whales - which the entities then replanted, fully evolved, 
back on earth. 

Other Ketamine users also report being plugged in to information 
networks while in K cyberspace. They have been reported as spending 
a great deal of time analysing conversations that they have held with 
the various Ketamine entities. These beings offer great insights into 
life, the universe and everything. In the words of one such traveller 
into the realm of the hyper-real, "It is no great accomplishment to hear 
a voice in the head. The accomplishment is to make sure that it is telling 
you the truth."

So how does the drug work? Ketamine's major consistent effect is 
dissociation, the adoption of an objective or dispassionate perspective. 
Classic dissociative phenomena include out of body experiences, astral 
travel, near-death and rebirth type experiences. For these reasons, 
Ketamine has been explored as an adjunct to psychotherapy. 
Researchers at the Psychoneurological Research Institute in St. 
Petersburg are using the drug in doses one tenth of those used in 
surgical anaesthesia to try to cure people suffering from depression 
and phobias. But they recognize that even under controlled conditions, 
the process of losing one's sense of individuality can produce ecstatic or 
horrifying results. 

People who have taken the drug report a range of effects from the 
unpleasant, to the downright dangerous. Reports from America offer 
numerous examples of users who get trapped in repeated, compulsive 
administration of the drug giving rise to incidents usually associated 
with bad acid trips, with people believing that they can fly or 
attempting to get out of moving vehicles. Others have suffered paranoia 
or severe delusional states. In the last few months, it has been 
increasingly evident that such incidents are no longer limited to the 
USA. Having the Ketamine entities lie to us may be the least of our 

It isnÕt just drug use that causes unforseen problems, drug prohibition 
also has an unintended impact. If police success causes marijuana 
shortages, then people use other drugs to compensate. In Scotland, 
where there is a shortage of imported heroin, people abuse 
pharmaceutical drugs, that invariably do more damage than heroin 
ever could. The combination of a massively expanded market for Ecstasy 
and a shortage of supply, has led to Ketamine making it's first 
appearance on the British black market. In the past, the only sources of 
the drug were tiny supplies that afficionados diverted from medical use. 
In the early part of 1990 during the first great Ecstasy draught, 
Ketamine came to light in police analysis of seizures of tablets sold as 
Ecstasy in nightclubs in various parts of England and Scotland. 

One user, in his thirties with a vast experience of illegal drug use came 
across the drug in this way. He bought a quantity believing they were 
Ecstasy, but when he tried them found that they were another drug 

"They were nothing like MDMA. If you took one and closed your eyes 
there was slight colour and patterning, but no euphoria, no stimulation, 
no desire to dance. All that they did was made the room slightly wobbly. 
A few nights later, I took three or four at once, to see what happened. It 
was like entering another dimension. All of a sudden, youÕre no longer 
there. You can't move, you can't think, you can't function -- all you can 
do is experience. It's only as you begin to come out of the Ketamine state 
that you begin to appreciate where you are or where you've been. 
Eventually, the world begins to reform, and you get some insight into 
the relationships between various parallel dimensions."

:The closest thing that I can compare it to is the film, Tron. I felt as 
though I was stuck in this network or maze of electronic impulses. At 
first, I had no sense of being there, or rather, I was there and not there 
at the same time, a sort of annihilation of the ego. As the drug wore off, 
and I became more aware of being inside my body, I felt like Robocop, 
or Terminator, some kind of mutant cyborg. My face seemed to be made 
up of a mass of needles or spikes or electrical impulses. The slightest 
movement would be accompanied by an intense sense of mechanical 
activity in my body. It wasn't pleasant or unpleasant, and it wasn't 
frightening, it just was."

This Ketamine user reported no desire to take the drug again. "It isn't a 
social drug like Ecstasy, and it isn't a stimulant, so you don't have any 
desire to dance. It isn't even euphoric, it's just very, very weird. I've 
had the experience a couple of times -- just to use the tablets up. It was 
interesting, but I've no desire to repeat it.

Twelve months later, this users experience is being replicated all over 
the country, sometimes intentionally  Ketamine is a damn sight easier to 
produce than Ecstasy - the precursor chemicals are easier to get hold of, 
and because it isn't illegal, you are unlikely to do time if you get caught. 
So some unscrupulous drug dealers are still trying to pass Ketamine off 
as "E". Others, no doubt working on the basis that you can't fool all of the 
people, all of the time, have thought ahead and worked out a clever 
marketing strategy. Our experience of a drugs is shaped by the 
interplay of three factors -- the pharmacology of the drug, the mind set 
of the user and the setting in which the drug is used. In order to 
promote a rebirthing mind-set, some "K" dealers are providing jars of 
babyfood and dummies to drive the point home. Dummies have since 
caught on as a fashion accessory at raves, but whether the trend was 
sparked by the emergence of Ketamine, or whether it's just a way to 
keeping the gurning under control is lost to myth and drug folklore. 

But trick or trend, Ketamine is beginning to have nasty consequences. 
There have been several hospitalizations in the North West over the 
past few months, people who entered catatonic states after taking what 
they believed were "E" but turned out to be "K". 

Now everybody is jumping on the Ketamine bandwagon. At an 
upcoming rave in Scotland, the flyer lists "Special K" as a featured 
attraction along with laser flowers, brain machines and gyroscopes. 
This is particularly ironic given that at least three people were 
hospitalized after taking Ketamine at the same venue. There have also 
been at least five hospitalizations in the North West recently, all people 
who became catatonic states after taking what they thought was Ecstasy. 
Last week, I was told about a club that closed an hour and a half early, 
because the organizers were so freaked out by the number of collapses.

It appears that the second Summer of Love may have spawned another 
monster. Liverpool drug researcher, Alan Matthews argues that any 
discussion of Ketamine is pointless. "Kids no longer talk about buying 
an "E", they say they had "a tablet". They have cottonned on to the fact 
that the dealers come up with a different brand name every week. Over 
the last few weeks, we've had Phase Fours, Phase Fives, Turbo's, 
Flatliners, Shamrocks. It's all completely meaningless. The tablets 
change every week, and even the people who are selling them don't 
know what's in them.  Ecstasy, Ketamine, it's all a red herring. The
important point to bear in mind is that every weekend, tens of thousands,
perhaps hundreds of thousands of people are taking tablets containing
unknown substances.  God only knows what the long-term consequences will

In light of this, anybody who takes strange tablets should observe 
certain basic precautions. Firstly, don't drink or mix your drugs -- 
Ketamine is a general anaesthetic for god's sake. You shouldn't even 
eat, let alone get pissed. Secondly, Ketamine has a slow onset taken 
orally, so if your tablet doesn't work, don't drop a few more and cross 
your fingers. Go home, and patronize a different dealer next week.

Whether Ketamine will gain an informed constituency in this country 
remains to be seen. I suspect it is unlikely.  The most likely scenario is 
that we will see an initial surge of Ketamine experimentation fuelled by 
media articles like this one, warning us of the "new devil drug", and the 
renewed enthusiasm for quasi-psychedelics prompted by Ecstasy that 
has overtaken us in recent years. However, as Ketamine lacks the 
euphoric and social properties that led to the widespread use of MDMA, 
the drug is likely to disappear as suddenly as it seems to have emerged. 
At the end of the day, debates over whether we are taking Ecstasy or 
Ketamine may prove to be a moot point. Every weekend now, tens of 
thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people are taking tablets 
containing unknown substances and God alone knows what the real 
long-term consequences of that are likely to be.

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