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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 doses.

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 worries.

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 completely.

"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 [Erowid Note : Ketamine was placed in Schedule III in August, 1999 making it illegal to possess without a license or prescription], 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 be."

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.