Earlier this week, we posted an article about some of the most common synthetic drugs (namely spice, flakka, and kratom). Not long after the article was published, one of our readers posted in the comments section about ketamine. They pointed out that, much like drugs such as spice and kratom, ketamine is very easy to come by if one knows where to look. As you well know, when an addict finds that a drug is easy to acquire, it is not long before they begin abusing it on a regular basis.
In our response to the commenter in question, we told her that we would likely write about ketamine at some point in the near future. But why wait? While we at Amethyst Recovery pride ourselves primarily on our addiction recovery programs, we would not operate this blog if we did not care equally about ensuring that addicts and their loved ones are able to acquire all of the information they need to avoid dangerous habits and live a fulfilling life of sobriety. So if our readers are interested in learning more about ketamine, it’s our duty to compile the information they need to understand this drug.
The following information will introduce you to ketamine, explain the symptoms of its use, and explore the dangerous long-term side effects that accompany ketamine addiction. We’ll then run through some of the basic statistics regarding the prevalence of ketamine addiction in the United States.
What Is It and How Is It Used?
One thing is for certain: ketamine is not your average street drug. A study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine describes ketamine as “the single most popular agent to facilitate painful emergency department procedures in children for nearly 2 decades.” In other words, it operates not only as a painkiller but also as a vital tool for anesthesia, especially where children are concerned. It has been ruled safe for medical use in the treatment of adults as well, but it takes a stronger dose and is more likely to result in certain side effects such as hallucinatory dysphoria, which is essentially a profound state of delusion, dissatisfaction, anxiety, depression, irritability, or general unease.
Interestingly enough, while ketamine can cause dysphoria when abused (more on this later), it has been deemed as a possibly viable antidepressant. Some patients who have been admitted to the ER while entertaining thoughts of suicide were found to have been relieved of their depression after having been administered ketamine by their attending physician. Of course, this was generally a measured dose in a controlled environment. When used by street buyers and party-goers, control has a tendency to go right out the window.
Officials appear to believe that ketamine is not dangerous when administered in a professional medical setting. As such, it has been designated as a schedule III controlled substance. This means that it has a legitimate medical purpose and is not as addictive as some other drugs, but that abuse can still lead to moderate physical dependence and high psychological dependence. What makes ketamine particularly interesting as a medical substance is that, much like heroin was marketed as a non-addictive substitute for morphine, ketamine was meant to be a safer alternative to PCP. However, due to some of its more negative symptoms, it is now often replaced with propofol or mixed together to create the alternative “ketofol.”
While ketamine may not be as prevalent in the medical field today, it is still used somewhat frequently by veterinarians. This is why one of the common street names for ketamine is “Cat Valium.” Other common street names include “Special K,” “Super K,” “Vitamin K,” and simply “K.” It is also known as “Kit Kat,” “Purple,” and “Jet.” There are also street names for the high that accompanies ketamine abuse. These include “K-hole,” “K-land” and, for some reason, “Baby Food.”
Like many popular party drugs, there are many ways to abuse ketamine. In comes in several different forms; sometimes it is a liquid, other times it is a tablet, and occasionally it is a powder. The most common methods of taking ketamine are to snort it, swallow the tablet, mix it into an alcoholic drink, or mix it into a joint and smoke it. Many also abuse it in the same fashion it would be administered at a hospital—by injecting it straight into their veins or muscles. One of the scarier aspects of this particular club drug is that it doesn’t have a notable taste or smell. This means that those who add it to drinks can use it to drug others as a means of committing illicit acts such as robbery or date rape.
Symptoms of Ketamine Abuse
Ketamine has a wide array of side effects, ranging from the high (hallucinatory dysphoria, delusions of strength, a generally dream-like state) to the low (bloody urine, vomiting, hives, and convulsions). Those who use ketamine may develop blue discolorations on the lips and other parts of the skin, and may experience pains or discomfort in the chest along with respiratory issues such as shallow breathing.
Some of these side effects are not unlike those associated with common signs of addiction. The ketamine user might display rapid and uncontrolled eye moments. They may have trouble speaking properly, and they might become more aggressive than usual. As with many drugs, the user might feel numb and may exhibit some loss or impairment of motor functions, causing them to appear as if they are lacking coordination. While many users enjoy the drug due to a reported loss of anxiety, this could easily be cancelled out by dysphoria. Many also enjoy the intensification of sensory stimuli, but the user’s hallucinatory state and irrationally exaggerated sense of strength can lead to behaviors that may result in personal injury.
Given that ketamine is meant to act as a substitute for PCP, some of these side effects are not too surprising. The real trouble arises when the user enters the “K-hole.” This is not just slang for ketamine highs in general, but is rather a reference to a specific out-of-body experience during which the user finds it difficult to move. Some users actively try to reach this state of intoxication, while others find it to be a highly frightening experience. Since drug use tends to slow the user’s perception of time, those who find the K-hole to be a particularly hellish experience are further plagued by the fact that ketamine highs can last anywhere from an hour to between four and six hours. Even then, it can sometimes take between one or two days before they feel as if they have reached a state of normalcy.
One writer on Gawker has written about his negative experiences with ketamine. While the article is somewhat humorous, referring to ketamine as “the world’s dumbest drug,” it is interesting to read about the drug from a former user’s perspective. He makes it very clear that, even though he used ketamine, he did not find the high particularly enjoyable. He writes: “As a downer, it brings you way too down. As a club drug, it makes your experience way too solitary to fully enjoy the group experience of going out. As a sedative, it sure works, but who actually enjoys being on anesthesia?”
Granted, the aforementioned article was written by a man who does not display addict behavior (he was able to simply stop using, and has not turned back in over ten years). True addicts are not able to tell their stories with the same sense of whimsy. For instance, one former user writing for The Guardian tells the story of how he continued to use long after his urine was beginning to burn and his cramps were getting so bad that he thought he had a collapsed lung. And eventually, even his dealers stopped selling to him because they were worried he might die. This brings us into the long-term effects of ketamine addiction.
Side Effects of Long-Term Use
The Australian Drug Foundation has actually compiled a pretty comprehensive list detailing the long-term side effects of ketamine addiction. It covers the long-term effects of use, as well as the symptoms of withdrawal. It is definitely worth reading, but we’ll outline some of the most important information here.
First of all, note that every addict is different. We don’t just mean in terms of personality (although we’ve talked about that before), but rather in terms of size, weight, tolerance, and general health. This means that two people might take the same amount of ketamine over a long period of time, but each person may develop different side effects. Nevertheless, many people will experience aches and pains when coming down from a ketamine high. They may also experience depression (given that a rather powerful antidepressant is leaving their system), as well as disorientation and even memory loss.
We’ve talked a little bit about overdose in terms of the “K-hole” sensation. Milder cases involve muscular rigidity (the previously mentioned inability to move). The heartbeat may also begin racing, body and skin temperature may rise, and the user may experience convulsions. In the worst cases, the user may slip into a coma or even succumb to death. This is usually only in particularly severe cases, since tolerance to ketamine actually develops quite rapidly. Unfortunately, anyone who has struggled with addiction is already aware that a spike in tolerance tends to result in increased frequency of use, often in larger amounts.
The long-term effects include the types of pain experienced by the Guardian writer mentioned above (extreme abdominal pain and a burning sensation when urinating). Those who snort it may suffer impairments in their olfactory senses, and users in general may be prone to headaches, flashbacks, and mood swings. Another listed side effect includes financial and social problems, as well as issues at work. In the worst cases, some users may also experience mounting legal issues, either due to their impaired judgment or the need for money to support their habit. There is also a condition known as ketamine bladder syndrome, which results in bladder ulcerations and incontinence.
Those who have used ketamine for a long period of time will exhibit various withdrawal symptoms when their body begins its natural detoxification process. Again, the Guardian article linked above does a great job at explaining this from a first-person perspective. Some of the common withdrawal symptoms include ketamine cravings, fatigue, loss of appetite (leading to weight loss), excessive sweating, chills, tremors, night terrors, anxiety and depression. Some users may also develop a rapid and irregular heartbeat when they are on withdrawal.
How Badly Is It Spreading?
Ketamine use has certainly affected a large number of people. Oddly enough, multiple stars of reality television have been connected with the drug. For instance, it surfaced in 2011 during a bust on the Jersey Shore house when it was found to be in possession of Jonny “The Unit” Manfre, a close friend of Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino. More recently, however, the ketamine addiction of former Big Brother winner Pete Bennett was covered in April. In fact, he spent so much on ketamine that he squandered all of the money he had won from the show and from subsequent publicity appearances.
Even those who work with the substance in a professional context are not immune to its draw. Sonja Farak, a state chemist, worked with multiple drugs between 2004 and 2013. It was found that she was diverting samples of many of the drugs she studied. At first, it was believed that the primary drugs she had taken were cocaine and amphetamines. However, it later surfaced that she had actually taken a number of addictive substances while working for the state lab in Massachusetts. Ketamine was one of many among them.
But these are just a few isolated cases. Even if ketamine use has affected a large number of people, would it be fair to call it an epidemic? Well, no, and the good news is that it may be on the decline. In 2000, the DOJ calculated that about 74% of all ketamine users were between the ages of 12 and 25, with 3% of high schools seniors having taken the drug within the preceding twelve-month period. By 2002, that 3% had dropped to 2.6%, and had dropped to 1.7% by 2006. Even greater news came in 2009, when it was reported that only 529 emergency room visits were related to ketamine. By contrast, 800 visits were attributed to Rohypnol, slightly over 4000 were attributed to LSD, and approximately 376,467 were attributed to marijuana.
Of course, this does not mean that ketamine is any less dangerous. The drug may not be spreading as rapidly, but it is still capable of claiming lives. And now that it has been deemed a viable antidepressant, a larger number of impressionable youths are potentially put at risk of exposure to the drug. Columbia University’s Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman thinks that this is somewhat reckless, and that the research required to deem ketamine safe for use as an antidepressant has been “leapfrogged.” In other words, there need to be further studies before we begin peddling ketamine to people who suffer from depression. Given that ketamine’s schedule III classification indicates the abuse risk to be primarily psychological, his points are incredibly valid.
In conclusion, while ketamine addiction may be declining, there is no telling whether it may spike again in the near future. Either way, the reality is that ketamine is relatively affordable in small doses, easy to acquire and, due to the rapid build-up of tolerance, even easier to abuse. This makes the drug especially dangerous, and it is to be avoided at all costs. If you know someone who is struggling with ketamine addiction, it may be time to stage an intervention. Do not let the problem persist to the point of long-term side effects. Death or disaster just may be lingering behind the shadow of the user’s next fix.