Clubs everywhere have been hit hard, thanks to a cost of living crisis that has made going out a luxury. But if certain corners of Club Twitter are to be believed, something else is posing a threat to nightlife: ketamine, or more specifically, an overabundance of it. “There is far too much ket on dancefloors in the uk imo,” wrote salute, a Manchester-based DJ, in a tweet that has been liked almost 2,000 times. “It sucks seeing people kind of just standing around like zombies and not dancing.”
His sentiment drew overwhelming agreement from clubbers and other DJs. In response to the tweet, Polish DJ and producer VTSS wrote: “I’ve actually started asking promoters in cities around the world what’s the predominant substance that’s consumed around there to adjust my vibe expectations.”
So is ket killing dancefloors or is this just overblown Twitter discourse? Bristol-based DJ Sam Binga thinks the drug is ruining the vibe, at least to some extent. “A whole dancefloor that’s very ketty hasn’t got energy,” he explains. “Ketamine is more of an isolating drug. And if you've got a crowd full of people doing this sort of wonky, dissociative drug, from a DJ’s point of view, they may be less engaged with what's going on.”
Josh Haygarth, who DJs as Next Generation Noise, makes a similar point. “[Ketamine] is drastically slowing the pace,” he says. “When you’ve got music that is geared around being high energy, and you’ve got a dance floor that looks like they're doing the mannequin challenge, it’s hard to really get that energy up.”
If crowds are sedating themselves by choice, could they end up changing what’s played in clubs? In the 2000s, people credited the prevalence of ketamine for driving the popularity of wonky, an offshoot of dubstep known for its off-kilter beats, though Ed Gillet, the author of Party Lines, a book about the history of UK dance music, is reluctant to overstate the influence of any one drug on dance music. He does acknowledge, however, that there’s certainly historical precedent to suggest ket “had an effect on the sort of sounds appearing on UK dancefloor”, pointing to the connection between the drug and minimal techno.
It makes sense that DJs feel that crowds predominantly on ket aren’t as engaged. Dissociation – one of the most well-known side effects of the drug – refers to a temporary mental state in which a person detaches from their surroundings. “As people consume high doses of ketamine, they might be having a vivid hallucinatory experience,” says Adam Waugh from drug-checking charity The Loop. “But externally, they’re pretty unresponsive.”
In lower doses, Waugh notes, people have reported that K can enhance music and have slight energising effects. Its dissociative effects, however, are compounded when the drug is mixed with alcohol. It’s also easier for people to take too much of it. “People's tolerances really vary, probably more so than other drugs,” he says. “Dependency and how it affects people's bodies differently [has] probably contributed to drug-related harm.”
Both Haygarth and Binga say that they noticed crowds were more likely to take excessive amounts of ketamine after lockdown. “It seems to be the drug of choice now based on how I see crowds [...] You had all the age groups who were turning 18 throughout the various lockdowns, so they’ve come into the scene once we reopened and they’ve just jumped straight in the deep,” Haygarth speculates. “I think this is why you see less responsible ketamine use because their raving journey has gone zero to 100 real fast.”
At one of Binga’s first post-lockdown shows in Bristol, the DJ saw attendees who’d taken too much ket being carried out of the venue at the start of the night. “It seems very easy [with ketamine] to go from, ‘Oh, you’re having fun’ to ‘you’re a dribbling wreck in the corner’,” he says. “As a DJ, that isn’t fun for me.”
Waugh agrees that ket taking appears to have accelerated post-lockdown, noting that drug use increased in lockdown more broadly. “Not only would I say that we are seeing more ketamine at events, we’re seeing more people using ketamine problematically,” he says. Waugh adds that The Loop has also seen an uptick in people coming forward with ket-related symptoms such as bladder issues and cramps.
Of course, ketamine is by no means a new drug. First synthesised in 1962 and approved by the FDA in 1970, it was given to American soldiers during the Vietnam war for pain relief. And this isn’t the first time the dancefloor has seen a noticeable uptick of ket: Gillet explains that major disruptions to the supply of MDMA in the late 00s coincided with the rise of ketamine and other drugs. “There was definitely some kind of increase in the amount of ketamine being used on UK dancefloors,” says Gillet of those years.
Even before the 2000s, the prevalence of ketamine was impacting the atmosphere at parties. Mark, the owner of a major London club, was once immersed in the free party scene, which saw unlicensed raves spreading over Europe in the 80s and 90s. (He is speaking anonymously for professional reasons.) “Earlier on in that scene, everybody took ecstasy,” he recalls, “so there was much more of a communal experience; it was very fun-loving.”
Mark remembers ket first appearing on the dancefloor in the late 90s. “It flooded in, and everyone was giving it a go… and it felt like, almost overnight, for me, [ketamine] completely killed the scene,” he says. “The collective experience, the united ‘oneness’, kind of dissipated and dissolved into thousands of people having relatively introverted, introspective experiences.”
Gillet thinks it’s too simplistic to suggest that ketamine was to blame for the demise of the free party scene. “The free party scene was, to a large extent, forcibly ended by legislation outlawing them,” he says. “It’s not as simple as everyone's doing MDMA and everything was lovely and then people took ketamine and everything was bad.”
If people on too much K are killing the vibe on the dancefloor, this also partly comes down to a lack of education surrounding the drug. “People are [often] surprised to learn about the danger of mixing ketamine and alcohol,” says Waugh. “Ketamine and alcohol is a really pretty common drug combination – and yet it's one that has a risk of fatal overdose.” In one 2021 Australian study, alcohol was present in over a quarter of ketamine-related deaths.
Of course, it’s not just a lack of information, Waugh stresses, but other factors driving overuse of the drug, like mental health issues. “Young people are generally struggling at the moment, and that links to the cost of living,” he says. “Many people use ketamine as an option for self medication.”
Educating people about drug use, rather than criminalising them for it, could help improve the atmosphere on the dancefloor. “You can use ketamine responsibly [but] there is no education or guidance on how to,” says Haygarth. “Ravers are finding out their limits the hard way and not knowing how much is too much until it’s too late.”
For the time being, though, the DJs that VICE spoke to are adamant that they stay true to what they want to play – ketted crowd or not.
Binga speculates that crowds who are dissociating may only register “bigger moments”, such as the drops, but he won’t consciously adjust his sets to people on ket. “I tailor my sets to how the crowd reacts to what I'm doing,” he says. “But I don't try and second guess what substances they're on.”
Haygarth agrees, saying that he won’t adapt his music to crowds more likely to be on ketamine. “The majority of ketamine users are likely to be at the back of the room propped up against the wall,” he says. “So from where I am on stage, usually they’re not my focus. I’m focusing on the people who came to rave – the people who are there for the energy.”