Until a few weeks ago, I was under the impression that ketamine was a lesser ‘party’ drug.

However, an article in the October 2014 issue of Tatler put paid to that notion.

Ketamine is far from harmless.

Some recreational users turn into addicts who end up losing their jobs and friends. An increasing number of habitual users have also permanently ruined their bladders, stomachs and muscles.

In 2014, the UK government reclassified ketamine to a class B controlled drug. Possession now carries the risk of a five-year prison term and unlimited fine.  (The government had declared ketamine illegal in 2006, declaring it a class C substance.)

The Tatler article explains more, both from a clinical and personal perspective. What follows is taken from ‘Ketamine: Only for Fools and Horses’ by Sophia Money-Coutts (pp. 111-116). I was shocked by what I read.

Background information

Why ketamine? It’s cheap (£15-£20 per gram), relaxes the user from a cocaine or MDMA high, makes him giggly and is a hallucinogenic (pp. 111-112).

Any legitimate uses? Ketamine was invented in 1962 in the United States for use as an anaesthetic for animals and humans. It is best known as a ‘horse tranquilliser’. It is still used clinically on humans. Vietnam War medics used it on injured troops; it is a powerful, fast-acting anaesthetic which can suppress pain without affecting vital functions (p. 112).

How did it become recreational? After the Vietnam War ended, psychiatrists began examining the hallucinogenic side of ketamine. It became a party drug in the 1990s and went mainstream after the Millennium. Max Daly, author of Narcomania: How Britain Got Hooked on Drugs calls it ‘the modern LSD’ (p. 112).

Early anecdote? In 1978, Sheraton Hotels heiress Marcia Moore published a book called Journeys into the Bright World in which she wrote that the world would be a ‘Garden of Eden’ if only government leaders and captains of industry took this ‘love medicine’. In 1979, she mysteriously disappeared from her California home. In 1981, her skeleton was found in a nearby forest. It is thought that Moore climbed a tree, took ketamine, lost consciousness and fell to her death (p. 112).

What’s it like? In addition to hallucinations and giggling, the user also experiences floating sensations and numbness. It is difficult to walk straight and a strong enough dose may result in drooling and slurred speech. Mandy Saligari of Charter Harley Street, a rehab clinic, describes the K-hole state after a large dose as the relaxed state one experiences when lying comfortably in bed — with an added hallucinogenic edge (p. 112). Users might wander the streets in a daze. Max Daly warns that ketamine is ‘dissociative’: one can stare at a bed without knowing what it is for (p. 114).

Recent deaths? In 2014, ketamine was attributed to two deaths: that of a 15-year old Londoner and a 26-year old Glastonbury festival goer. In 2013, an 18-year old girl died after taking ketamine at a music festival in Winchester (p. 114).

When do users start? Mandy Saligari, who tours schools giving talks about drugs, says that users are getting younger with an increasing number starting at age 14 or 15. She adds that they are ‘confident’ that they will suffer no negative side-effects (p. 112) However, many more young people begin taking the drug at university, including students who had no prior drug history (p. 114). No doubt ketamine is presented by their peers as being a harmless weekend drug.

One woman’s ketamine story

The Tatler feature ended with an anonymous first-person account (pp. 114-116) by a young woman who began using ketamine at university, where she lived with five friends of hers.

She had no previous drug history, although she did get into trouble at boarding school for drinking.

She was attracted to ketamine because it was cheap. A £20 gram sufficed for an evening out with friends.

Within a few months she began taking ketamine several times a week: a small quantity for a buzz or a larger one for a K-hole with its hallucinations. She described her K-hole experiences as ‘euphoric’ and, even though they lasted only a half hour, she said she discovered she ‘liked getting totally out of my mind’.

Later, she wanted more of an escape. Near the end of her first year at university, she mixed ketamine with valium, coke and MDMA. She passed out. Panicked, her friends rang her parents. She woke up three days later in a rehab clinic, where she stayed for a month.

Only 19 at the time — 2008 — and attending the clinic’s outpatient programme, she resumed drinking and taking ketamine in her flat with the curtains closed. She no longer saw the point in living. Her counsellor suggested going to South Africa to cure the addiction once and for all.

This woman spent three years in a South African rehab centre. She returned to London in 2011 to reconnect with friends and to find a job.

Now 26, she works for an estate agent. She still goes out with her friends but restricts herself to a drink or two. She knows of only one friend who hasn’t taken drugs: ‘Lucky her’.

Warnings to parents

Two people in the know warn parents about the effects that K-holes can have on users (p. 114).

Mandy Saligari of Charter Harley Street urges parents to talk to their children about the dangers of ketamine. She mentions the ‘heartbreaking’ YouTube videos of ketamine users ‘wandering around off their heads’.

Max Daly, author of Narcomania: How Britain Got Hooked on Drugs, says that parents should be ‘really worried’ if their children start taking ketamine, ‘much more so than if they’d taken cocaine’.

Bladder, stomach and muscular damage

The thing that really shocked me was reading that ketamine may cause irreversible bladder and stomach damage.

In fact, the article begins by talking about users in their 20s who are incontinent. British urologists are seeing more and more cases of ketamine users with serious — sometimes permanent — bladder disorders. Some of them are only teenagers (p. 111)!

Users with stomach damage are bent over, holding their gut because of the pain (p. 112). This is known as K-cramp.

Dan Wood, a urologist at University College London Hospitals, said that ketamine is toxic to the bladder lining: ‘it works like paint stripper’ (p. 112).

Urologists held a conference in 2013 — K-Day — to discuss the phenomenon. In some cases, they need to reconstruct a ketamine user’s bladder from bowel tissue — then attach a catheter (p. 112). This is no temporary measure. This is for life.

Other users with bladder problems might need to wear incontinence pants or pads (p. 111). Some might recover, provided they stop using ketamine. For others, however, it will be too late.

Another serious side-effect of extended ketamine use is muscular damage. The drug can stiffen and damage muscles over time. One parent was horrified that his son couldn’t stop ‘walking like a chicken’ (p. 112).

Tomorrow’s post will have more from ketamine users and urologists.

Ketamine is not to be taken lightly or dismissed simply as a horse tranquilliser which is safe for humans. The highs are short and their effect can last a lifetime.