As its street price plummets, ketamine could become this generation's ecstasy
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When Holly, 18, and her sixth-form friends were mainly doing coke, they would spend ages getting ready for a night out. “But now I’ll just wear a tracksuit or something, whatever’s most comfortable,” she says. Now that Holly is into ketamine, cocktail bars and show-off nightclubs have been swapped for house parties where, frankly, nobody really cares what you look like. Mainly because when you are on K, you are out of your head, on another planet.
A press release issued by the charity DrugScope earlier this month sparked a rash of newspaper articles declaring that ketamine could overtake cocaine among British recreational drug users. That may be some way off, but it does not take too much digging to confirm the drug’s increasing popularity — within certain pockets of society at least. According to one girl on the scene: “Everybody in Camden is doing it . By Sunday afternoons, the whole area can feel like a big ket-pit.” In Ibiza, ketamine is the narcotic of choice for Brits working out there because it’s “cheap, effective and fun”.
It is teenagers who have really embraced ketamine — which is commonly used as an anaesthetic in veterinary medicine, hence its “horse tranquilliser” nickname — claiming it as their own. Unfazed by (or perhaps unaware of) the seedy connotations previously tagged to ket, that of the scuzzy 1990s squat-party scene, they are fast adopting it as their ecstasy — the drug that could define their generation.
Indeed, a kind of “off-your-Facebook” already exists on YouTube, where home-made K-hole videos form a gruesome gallery of the “hilarious” effects of the drug. “I’ve never got anyone to film me,” says Holly, “but when you’re on it, you do think, ‘This feels so weird and amazing, I wonder what it looks like?’ ”
What a K-hole looks like is somebody falling all over the place, babbling incoherently and gurning their chops off. What it feels like can range from euphoria, to extreme drunkenness with accompanying hallucinations, to a conversation with God. Oh, and the F word keeps cropping up: as in, it’s lots of fun. And perhaps that is part of the appeal. “Coke just got a bit boring,” says Holly. “Not to mention expensive.”
To an extent, the rise in the popularity of ketamine is down to the credit crunch. Ketamine use still lags behind that of cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy (only 1%-2% of calls to the drugs helpline Frank are ketamine-related). However, the British Crime Survey shows that use of the drug last year increased nationally by 10%, and in cash-strapped times the finger is being pointed at K’s relatively low price. The national average for a gram is £20 (although already you can get it for £10 in some parts of London), compared to £42 for cocaine. So, for Damien, a 20-year-old student and former public school boy who takes drugs “about four times a week”, it makes financial sense to swap at least one of those wraps of coke for ket. Alternatively, it can give you the wonkey-donkey fun of a booze binge without the bar bill — or the headache.
And then there is the whole “staying in is the new going out” thing. Damien and his mates use K to bring another dimension to country-house weekenders — who needs shiny disco lights when the entertainment is all going on inside your head?
K is also surfacing on the twentysomething yuppie dinner-party circuit. One guest at a recent gathering of “uni friends, lawyersand a doctor” was surprised when lines of ketamine (the drug, in an illegally produced form, comes as a grainy white powder) replaced the usual after-dinner line of coke. “It was like dinner was from Aldi instead of Waitrose, and the drug was K. The thing is, nobody talked to anyone after that. We all just rolled around in the living room giggling, and then went home. It certainly isn’t a social substance.”
Perhaps not, but that didn’t stop it from popping up at weddings, festivals and all sorts of posh parties last summer. At Glastonbury 2008, police seized double the amount of ketamine compared to 2007. Tatler even flagged up the trend for “Royal Borough”, as in Kensington and Chelsea or K&C — mixing your K with your coke. (It’s also known as CK or Calvin Klein.)
Whatever the kids are doing, the wannabe for-ever-youngs also want a piece. “I was at a very swanky society wedding last summer where the younger crowd were all doing K,” says one 30-year-old fashion PR. “They’d been spreading it around, so everybody had a wrap, but obviously this led to a lot of mishaps. By the end of the day, there were quite a few casualties passed out in the car park.”
Part of the appeal among young users is that K is seen as relatively safe — no more harmful than a very strong painkiller. “It was developed for medical use, after all,” says Holly. Both she and Damien say they would take it over ecstasy or LSD, “because you know what you’re getting and it only lasts a couple of hours”. It is commonly thought that as long as you control the amount you’re taking, you’re in control of the drug, but addiction is a risk.
Users can’t become physically dependent on ketamine, but a high proportion of those who get off on the drug (it’s also known as Marmite in the illicit-drug lexicon — you either love it or you hate it) go on to become regular, often daily, users. Tolerance increases rapidly, with DrugScope citing the case of a man who developed a 25g a day habit in the space of 18 months.
It is easy to get into. Users report none of the paranoia or comedown associated with cocaine or ecstasy, so “why wouldn’t you do it?” asks Damien. “It’s weirdly addictive,” confirms Holly. “It’s so much fun, you want to get there again. It does start to feel like life could get boring without it.”
This is where things get tricky. Jane Haywood, an addiction nurse and spokesperson for Frank, says it is a little-known fact that severe problems in the kidneys and urinary tract are common among habitual users (Holly already has a scare story about a friend who is “peeing jelly”), and that “as with any hallucinogenic, long-term anxiety can set in, along with ‘depersonalisation’, where the user can stop feeling like a real person”. Ketamine deaths are rare — just 23 recorded between 1993 and 2006, with most due to accidents occurring when people are so out of it, they don’t know what they’re doing.
DrugScope is quick to point out that its findings do not yet represent “an epidemic” — but the kids are up for it.
By Ruby Warrington
January 25, 2009