As most of America shut down earlier this year, people suddenly found themselves sitting at home, bored as hell and wondering what to do. For Masha, a 30-something journalist in New York City whose name has been changed for her privacy, that meant starting to use ketamine for the first time. While Masha is mostly sober, she was drawn to what she called the "therapeutic potential" of ketamine, and a friend of a friend was selling it—so, she figured, why not? “Some people get into witchcraft. Some bake bread,” Masha said. “I’m doing ketamine.”
Masha isn't alone in her new at-home hobby. Ketamine seems to have hit a more mainstream stride during this pandemic: Though it's hard to find data around ketamine use in the U.S., those adjacent to its use are anecdotally reporting an uptick in demand, including doctors who prescribe it as a mental health treatment, underground market dealers, and users themselves. Social media is flooded with so many casual ketamine jokes that tweeting about it is already considered cringe.
For some people, the dissociative drug has become a balm in isolation, like a stress relief method used similarly to how they might drink a glass of wine—even though, not too long ago, it was commonly regarded as a “scary horse tranquilizer” due to its use by veterinarians as an anesthetic. Though most people still take ketamine recreationally by snorting lines, the evolving medical approach to ketamine has a lot to do with its recreational use and destigmatization.
In 2019, the FDA approved an esketamine nasal spray called Spravato to treat depression. Ketamine’s stigma has diminished as its therapeutic value has become more widely reported. The drug’s medical properties are hardly news—the World Health Organization designated it an "essential medicine" in 1985 for use as a painkiller and anesthetic. But ketamine truly hit the prime time in 2013, when the FDA designated esketamine (a more potent version of ketamine) as a “breakthrough treatment” for depression. The media’s excitement around medical ketamine as a source of instant and profound mental health relief kicked into high gear last year: One WIRED story asked, "Is This Club Drug the New Prozac?"
“People are inspired to try things that they wouldn’t before,” said DJ, a drug dealer in New York whose name has been changed for his privacy. During stay-at-home orders, DJ noticed that business was booming, even though there were fewer people in the city to sell to. Instead, his regulars were stockpiling ketamine—buying huge amounts, and even setting up their own supply chains to sell to friends. This coincided with a decrease in demand for other drugs he sold: “I’m not selling as many pressed [MDMA] pills without raves and parties. MDMA isn't as fitting for sitting on the couch,” DJ said.
Reagan, a 28-year-old graduate student in Portland whose last name has been omitted for her privacy, tried ketamine for the first time at a concert two years ago. When COVID hit, she lost her job at a nightclub, and started doing ketamine at home more than she had in the past. It was easy to fall into the habit; she was friends with her dealer. “Ketamine is literally a dissociative anesthetic—what better way to go through a weird time than to dissociate?” Reagan said. “No other drug makes me feel like I’m in a bubble, like there’s no heightened anxiety.”
“Ketamine was already having a moment before the pandemic, but COVID-19 was the perfect storm,” said Sam Ko, who runs a medical ketamine clinic in Palm Springs, California. He thinks that the challenges of the COVID crisis, coupled with changing medical and social associations with K, are contributing to increasing interest in the drug. “With mental health issues exacerbated by social isolation and more media reports on ketamine, more people are aware that this is another option,” Ko said.
Some casual users outside of clinical settings say they also find relaxation and relief in doing K. Aaron, a 30-something in New York whose name has been changed (and whose friends call him the “ketamine king of Williamsburg”), told VICE he eats his ketamine by dissolving a few small spoonfuls into a glass of water. He compares this process to eating a weed edible—he says the come-up is slower and has more intense effects. “Ketamine is the drug that requires the least amount of investment,” he said. “I can do stuff later on. I don’t get anxious.” Ketamine’s effects usually last for about an hour and rarely cause a hangover.
New York–based poet Rachel Rabbit White described ketamine use as an “lounge-around, anti-work, off-time" activity. She told VICE that at-home use feels like a way of delineating the difference between the two: “When people are working from home, there’s no break between the office and your living space,” White said. “Ketamine is a 'fuck work' drug."
White has also noticed that her friends were blowing through more ketamine than ever before; her guess is that their tolerances had gone up from doing it so much over the past few months. “Last night, I threw a party, and everyone was like, 'WHERE IS THE KETAMINE,'” White said. “Everyone wanted to blast ketamine—no one wanted to do coke.”
“Cocaine is 'pointy brain,' ketamine is 'smooth brain,'” added Aaron, who also prefers K to stimulants like cocaine.
But when ketamine transitions from a party drug to at-home habit, the shift can heighten dependence issues. Reagan said that she used K at home as a way of "grieving" for her social life after stay-at-home orders hit. "In the beginning of quarantine, there were a lot of livestreams of DJs and music. One night, a friend came over because there was one with a lot of our favorite artists on it. We dressed up, put on makeup, and did K," she said. At first, continuing to use by herself felt like not only a way to dissociate, but another way of adapting to life indoors: "I wanted to replicate the feeling of dancing and getting fucked up with my friends by doing K alone," she said. It turned into a daily thing.
In June, Reagan started experiencing excruciating pain in her lower back, and her doctor told her that she had high liver enzymes, which she knew could be a side effect of ketamine use (as can bladder damage, addiction, overdose, and other health problems). She saw this as a wake-up call. “I questioned whether or not I'm an addict and need to start a 12-step program,” she said. The realization that COVID isn't going anywhere has also set in, and Reagan wants to find new ways to deal with that fact. "I have to adjust to this new reality—we're going to have to keep wearing masks and being safe, and everything," she said. She's cut down her use significantly and only buys ketamine on rare occasions. She's considering going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings as she tries to stop using by herself altogether.
Despite the risks, some people still feel that ketamine is a panacea that's perfectly suited to the hellishness the pandemic has wreaked on normal life. “Since we can’t socialize or experience life normally, normal pathways of realization, connection, and unique ideation are off-limits. Everything is drab and makes no sense,” as Masha put it. “Ketamine kind of synthesizes those experiences in a closed-loop system […] and imbues normal things with a sense of profoundness. It’s kind of perfect for the situation we’re in.”