Generation K: why we’re all hooked on ketamine
The 1960s had acid, the 1990s had ecstasy – we have ketamine. But is it possible that the party drug of today could have real antidepressant benefits in the near future?
A recent study found that ketamine, the infamous horse tranquiliser-turned-party drug which is soon to be bumped up to a class B, could actually be an extremely effective treatment for depression.
This research may come as a surprise to those familiar with the drug – ketamine’s effects are primarily those of sedation and detachment, unlike most mainstream antidepressants.
Although most often identified as a veterinary anaesthetic, ketamine came into popularity as a ‘club drug’ in the UK in the 1990s. Like all things generation Y, if it was cool in the 90s, it’s cool now.
“Me and my mates bloody love it” says Charlie*, an Oxford University student who takes ketamine regularly. “If I had my way, I would use it every time I go out. I hate alcohol.”
Despite the gravity of the official warnings, and the government’s toughening stance on the drug, usage amongst young people is not dying out. Charlie’s responses to my questions about the potential harms were the same that you tend to get from other user: despite bad experiences, ketamine is still more attractive to her than alcohol. “In terms of price, effects, and long-term effects, its my drug of choice”, she says; “there’s also no chance of drunk calling your ex on it, so in that respect I think it’s less harmful.”
In last year’s Tab drug survey, 25% of students who responded admitted to having tried it and over 50 used it every day.
Though most often associated with the house music scene, the drug is hardly limited to fans of the genre; “I think it’s so popular because it fits many moods and spreads over a wide diversity of genres”, Manchester DJ Kosey tells me.
“The scene is thriving at the moment” Kosey says. “I think much of it has to be down to the house music revival in the UK, but it also really appeals to students and party-goers because it’s so cheap.”
Indeed the dissociative state of the drug seems to be a desirable effect, rather than a deterrent, as far as clubbing is concerned: “It’s strange, but in a really good way”, Tom, a third-year student in Sheffield, tells me. “You go into your own little world. It’s just you and the music.”
Chris, who dealt ketamine as a student, estimates that he made around £15,000 from selling the drug to other university students.
“I was taking it at big nights out and really just couldn’t deal with the inefficiencies of having to engage with the incompetent dealers that we had to use. They knew nothing about business and tried to screw you at every turn.
“I took more as a result but I had no money problems so I could eat well, party hard and concentrate on work.” While he says there was never any trouble, he admits to one sketchy moment. “Whilst we were on holiday we came back to find our house was ransacked… I guess that’s the paranoia that comes with dealing.”
The fact that ketamine is seemingly worlds away from typical ‘party drugs’ like ecstacy has done nothing to stop it becoming almost inseparable from the modern deep and tech-house movement, much to the chagrin of some industry insiders.
Last year DJ Sneak vented his frustration about “ketamine hype DJs” like Seth Troxler; his annoyance was mirrored in a damning article by Sabotage Times’ Tom Armstrong called ‘Dancefloors Against Ketamine’ who called it the “quintessential ‘anti-party’ drug… If ecstasy is energy, ketamine is lethargy.”
It’s power as an anti-depressant is obvious. Despite its popularity, ketamine has been linked with a number of less-than-enjoyable side-effects, from agitation and panic attacks to temporary paralysis and memory impairment. “The first time I did it, I thought my boyfriend had died and I lost all feeling in my legs”, Charlie says. “People K-hole on the floor, or lose all control of their limbs and are unable to walk home.”
Though most of these effects are only temporary, a permanent risk of taking ketamine, along with cognitive impairment and memory problems, is what the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs call “severe and disabling” bladder damage.
One user told BBC’s Newsbeat: “I have to go to the toilet three times an hour. It takes me ages to get started, and it’s absolute agony… It’s not taken that long for me to completely ruin my bladder.”
So taking these dangers into account, can we expect to see ketamine on pharmacy shelves any time soon? Not according to Dr. Rupert McShane, the lead researcher on the trial. “It really is dramatic for some people… it’s a really wonderful thing to see”, he told the BBC – but was keen to point out that we wouldn’t be seeing the drug as a routine treatment any time soon: “it’s not about to replace Prozac.”
After all, ketamine is prohibited for reasons, and its recreational use is a very different story to its medical applications. According to Professor Val Curran, Professor of Psychopharmacology at UCL and a top expert on ketamine, the doses used in the study were “very small compared to those that recreational users take”.
“It certainly is not suitable for use as a regular antidepressant”, she continues; “Heavy recreational use of ketamine can lead to getting hooked and that can itself trigger or worsen depression.”
Whilst it is never a bad thing to keep the public informed about progress in medical science, Professor Curran advises students to take what they read with a pinch of salt. “This research looked at a positive application of ketamine, but it is a reminder that the effects of ketamine on the brain and body can outlast the intoxication”, she says.
The professional opinion seems to be that occasional careful use of the drug is relatively risk-free, but that regular use is a serious problem. “Students should know that the use of ketamine by doctors and vets does not mean it is risk-free… I would recommend anyone who overuses ketamine to stop or cut back before the damage becomes irreversible, and to seek help if they need it.”
The drug’s new potential as an anti-depressant is surprising, and may only be a boost to the positive image that ketamine has garnered amongst Britain’s student population. Like the music it is often set to, ketamine’s appeal seems to come from its status as an ‘alternative’ – in this case, to alcohol.
Perhaps for some people, a tranquiliser is just more appealing.
The Drugscience website has useful information for anyone wanting to know more about ketamine.
*names have been changed