When a federal judge declared the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) illegal, suspending applications for undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. and were hoping to be shielded from deportation, Luis did a massive bump of ketamine and crawled into bed.
The 38-year-old, who uses they/them pronouns, migrated to the U.S. from Mexico as a teenager and has been living in New York since 2017. Their friends had raised money for a lawyer so that they could apply for DACA when the judge’s decision came down in July 2021.
“I just remember the floor opening up and swallowing me whole,” they told VICE News. “I was in a freefall and I couldn’t breathe.” VICE News is not using their real name due to their immigration status.
After doing ketamine and turning on their color-changing LED lights, they put a set by German deep house producer and DJ Ben Böhmer on Youtube and lay in bed crying.
“I was able to process what was happening in a very healthy way where I was able to feel sorry for myself. I was able to see that it wasn't my fault and that I was enough.”
Luis has a complicated relationship with drugs. They used meth daily for two years, before stopping at age 32. For a time they were in a 12-step program but didn’t identify with the abstinence-only doctrine, because they told VICE News MDMA, mushrooms, LSD, and ketamine have helped them process trauma and gain self-acceptance around being queer and using drugs.
Once primarily known as a European club drug or a “horse tranquilizer”, ketamine—a dissociative that produces psychedelic effects—has become much more mainstream in the U.S. in the last few years, both in legal therapeutic settings and recreationally. But for a subset of users, it’s more than just a drug that makes raves more fun—it also helps them stay off substances that they've had issues with, including alcohol. Others who never really liked drinking or other drugs to begin with told VICE News it’s an alternative that allows them to party without dealing with a hangover or comedown.
But it is possible to have problematic ketamine use, in some cases causing painful bladder issues. Though the drug doesn’t cause physical withdrawal symptoms, some users told VICE News their use has been excessive or out of control at times; one woman who described herself as a “high functioning ketamine addict” said she entered rehab in December because she was doing four to six grams of the drug a week while attending college.
“It is not healthy. It is not a safe substitute for other drugs, especially when it's used frequently, such as daily or five times a week,” said Dr. Gerard Sanacora, a psychiatry professor at the Yale School of Medicine and director of the university’s depression research program.
The number of Americans using ketamine is still relatively low, though there are indications it’s growing.
A study published in 2021 in the Journal of Public Health reported that less than 1 percent of the general population was using the drug, but found the number of people in New York’s nightlife and festival scene who reported using ketamine in the previous year went from 5.9 percent to 15.3 percent between 2016 and 2019. Meanwhile, an analysis of illicit ketamine seizures published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry in May found that they increased by 349 percent from 2017 to 2022, suggesting a possible increase in recreational use, according to study author Joseph Palamar, an associate professor of population health at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine.
It’s also being studied as a novel treatment for alcoholism and other substance use disorders, but that research is in its early phases. Those scenarios usually involve people taking ketamine intravenously followed by therapy. While there’s no evidence supporting the idea that frequently taking ketamine instead of another drug is effective, people are still doing it.
Myc Williams, 40, is director of policy for the Michigan Initiative for Community Healing, a group advocating for the decriminalization of plant-based psychedelics and to defelonize the possession of all drugs.
Williams, who previously struggled with problematic opioid and alcohol use, said he went to a 12-step program to deal with his substance use issues, but felt alienated by its hardline stance on taking other substances.
Now he’s part of a group called Psychedelics in Recovery that embraces people’s experiences with psychedelics as part of recovery.
“Within the recovery community, especially 12 step programs, it’s such a ‘You're abstaining from everything or you're not in recovery’ attitude that turns so many people away when cannabis, or ketamine or entheogens are actually quite useful and beneficial to that,” Williams said, “and much lower risk than daily drinking or daily heroin use.”
A 2021 study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found in England, there are around 30 deaths linked to ketamine a year, a number that’s risen from around 5 per year between 1997-2005. Most deaths involved other drugs. England had more than 20,000 deaths related to alcohol and more than 2,200 linked to opioids in 2021.
However, Sanacora, who doesn’t believe ketamine should be used at all outside of medical settings, said the idea that ketamine is less damaging than alcohol “is not a true statement.”
Ketamine increases heart rate and blood pressure, which might be fine for healthy people but could be riskier for those prone to cardiovascular issues, he said. It also carries the same risks as going under anesthesia and can impair cognition, making it “difficult for people to fully understand...what's real and what's not,” he added.
But Williams reasoned that while no consistent drug use comes without harms, “people will use drugs outside of a medical setting regardless of what a law or a doctor says because they always historically have.”
He hasn’t used opioids for 15 years and hasn’t had a drink in three. These days he takes ketamine or other dissociatives four to five days a week.
At his peak ketamine use, around a decade ago, he was using 3.5 grams a day, but he still didn’t consider his use problematic.
“It was excessive and irresponsible and unsafe but was it necessarily problematic? I would argue probably not because it never cost me a job, never put me in jail,” he said.
Other ketamine users told VICE News the drug does for them what alcohol does for a lot of people, but with less of a downside for them.
Growing up in a big family, Bry Law said large gatherings and drinking were very common. But in college, Law, 28, realized they didn’t actually enjoy the sensation they got from booze.
Law said ketamine gives them a “trippy alcohol” feeling—where they feel looser and want to move, but “the quality of the looseness is less sloppy.”
“(Alcohol) would make me feel nauseated and make me feel headaches. And when I started enjoying other substances, I realized that I can have a lot of the fun aspects of alcohol that people enjoy: the lowered inhibition, the nice body sensations, the enjoyment of dancing and music and socializing, without feeling like I had poison inside of me,” said Law, who lives in Oakland and works for Dancesafe, a non-profit focused on harm reduction in the nightlife community.
Law said they’ve noticed in their circle—a rave festival community, alcohol is less common “than literally anything else.” After a campout a few weeks ago, someone tried to unload a bunch of leftover White Claws, “but no one wanted those.”
Part of that may speak to a larger sober curiosity movement, where more people are experimenting with not drinking. A University of Michigan study found that the number of adults 18-22 who abstained from alcohol went from 20 to 28 percent between 2002 and 2018. In some cases, people are going “Cali Sober,” meaning they abstain from alcohol but still use weed and psychedelics.
Luis, who said ketamine has been both a helper and a crutch, is still finding a balance.
Earlier this year, in part to cope with symptoms from their complex post traumatic stress disorder, Luis binged on meth for five days; it had been six years since they last used. By the end of the bender, they said their body was “destroyed.” Ketamine helped them stop again, they said.
“Ketamine really helped me get out of it and soothe not only the comedowns but also the triggers and cravings,” Luis said.
But they’ve also been trying to cut back on ketamine, in part by not keeping any in the house, and regulate their emotions using other tools like therapy.
“My relationship with drugs is kind of like me—it’s non-binary. At some point I may be using them more often and at some point I may say ‘Hey you know what, I think I’ve done all the drugs I need to do.’”