Daniel Saynt, who runs the New York nightclub NSFW and organizes the physician-led responsible drug use class “Just Say Know,” had gotten burnt out from traditional party drugs like cocaine when he discovered ketamine, a drug traditionally used to put people and animals under for medical procedures. He took comfort in the fact that the substance had been used in medical settings, was unlikely to be laced with fentanyl and felt less risky to acquire since it’s a Schedule III drug. He also believes it’s safer and likes not having a hangover the next day. And he considers it more “spiritual” than other party drugs.
Twenty-five-year-old Melissa Vitale recently developed a similar affinity for ketamine. “I only just discovered ketamine and never thought I'd be the one to request what is commonly used as a horse tranquilizer over any other drug. But I find myself, when offered one or the other, gravitating toward a small bump of K over any other substance,” she says.
"I'm more of a ‘chill out’ than ‘drop molly and dance for eight hours’ kind of gal,” she continues. “I also don't like the feeling of a never-ending trip. I like to use a drug that will wear off by the time I take my makeup off and put my night cream on. When I was first offered ketamine, just a small bump sent me into a trance of euphoria, and I was able to feel completely separated and disassociated from my stresses. I danced with friends, and when I went out to have my final joint before calling my cab home, I realized I no longer felt the drug and was ready to go to bed.”
Stella Vance, author of Dancing with Duality, Confessions of a Free Spirit, found that ketamine provided a more profound experience even than other psychedelics. “Compared to ketamine, LSD and ayahuasca are just like having a few beers,” she says. “It's really the ultimate [drug] for having a ‘peek behind the curtain.’”
“Ketamine has been on the rise amongst festival goers,” says Saynt. “I think the reason is due to increased knowledge on drug use and the ease of access to ketamine.”
One anonymous 32-year-old DJ in Los Angeles says he’s noticed ketamine growing in popularity as well. “It seems to be that people are taking part in using K in large groups, and it’s bringing them together,” he says. “I’ve observed people tend to be a bit more quiet on K, but they’re still having the same experiences together.”
He’s also personally partial to ketamine because there’s “no hangover” and he perceives it as safe if used correctly.
“I like how it makes me feel in the club environment,” he adds. “A lot of times, the energy can be really fast-paced and wild, and K manages to bring everything down a bit but still keep your body feeling amazing and connected with everything happening around you. It’s also a plus that it doesn’t last hours and hours like other substances.”
Another reason ketamine’s popularity may be growing is that it’s being studied as a treatment for depression, Saynt adds. “You've got a growing base of Americans experiencing various levels of stress due to political influences. Millennials are more aware of the dangers of pharmaceutical products currently used to treat depression, and many see ketamine as a safer alternative.”
But is this perception of ketamine as relatively safe accurate?
Ketamine “is an extremely safe medication with limited adverse effects when associated with its medical use,” says Prakash Masand, M.D., psychiatrist and founder of the Centers of Psychiatric Excellence. However, it gets riskier when you’re using it recreationally. “Risks of using ketamine recreationally usually occur at higher doses than used in treatment of psychiatric illness."
The problem is, it’s very hard to dose ketamine, says James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center. “Trying to determine the right dose in terms of mg/kg of body weight is a fairly specific calculation,” he explains. In addition, it’s hard to predict what your sensitivity to ketamine will be if you haven’t taken it before.
The risks of a ketamine overdose are many, with psychosis and high blood pressure among the most common, says Masand. Those who repeatedly abuse ketamine can sometimes even develop a form of bladder inflammation known as ketamine cystitis. The most deadly risk, though, may be shutdown of your autonomic nervous system, which can lead to cardiac failure, respiratory failure, coma and death.
Like any psychedelic, ketamine poses the risk of derealization, or detachment from reality, says Giordano. At lower doses, this derealization can be a positive experience.
“You get a feeling of being able to disconnect with your body in a very positive way, the feeling like you’re one with the universe,” Giordano says. But at higher doses, some fall into “K-holes,” where they’re temporarily paralyzed and have no control over their bodies, which can be a scary experience.
As for the perception that there’s no ketamine hangover, this isn’t true for everyone, says Giordano. Ketamine hangovers are very dose-dependent, with medium or high doses leading people to experience “periods of feeling they’re not necessarily in their body but telegraphed.”
If you use ketamine, Giordano suggests having a small dose and avoiding re-dosing. “People often multiple-dose themselves because the effects wear off, and you get dose stacking, and then you have a mid-range dose and you have problematic side effects,” he says.
Instead, he advises, “Start low and go slow.”