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Drugs

How Ketamine Became the UK Teenager's Drug of Choice

It's always been around, but in 2019 ketamine is back at the top of the teenage drug menu.

by Ryan Bassil
16 September 2019, 7:00am

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

If you've been to a British club night, festival or afters during the last 20 years, chances are you'll have bumped into some ketamine. The horse tranquilliser turned Class B drug has bubbled in the background of the country's party scene consistently for decades, to the point that "getting ketty" is now as embedded in the British cultural identity as Toby Carvery and the act of drinking six pints before boarding your 7AM Ryanair flight.

While it's always been around, K's popularity has ebbed and flowed over that time. But right now, we're slap-bang in the middle of a peak, as increasing usage decrees we Make Britain Ketty Again.

Stats back this up: a 2018 Home Office report showed seizures of ketamine were up 30 percent on the previous year – the third year-on-year increase. That same report also found that 16 to 24-year-olds were huffing and bumping more shards of K than ever before – or at least since official government records began, in 2006.

So what gives? Is ketamine simply the next on-trend drug, trotting up users' noses now they're bored of Xanax, 2-CB and mephedrone?

Drugs VICE
Photo by Emily Bowler

Context is important in understanding the peaks and troughs in usage. A crackdown on ketamine production, mainly in India, meant supplies dried up in 2014. When it returned a couple of years later, the price doubled, but has since dropped – UK to UK sales on darknet site Empire Market average at around £20 per gram, much less than the £30 to £50 price-point charged during the 2014/15 shortage.

There's undoubtedly a connection between ket's decreased price and increased use – but money isn't everything.

Laura*, an 18-year-old from north Devon, took ketamine for the first time at a music festival last year. Since then she's fallen in with a group who deal the drug, making it prevalent among their friendship group – but even if you're not hanging out with people who buy in bulk, realistically, when you're young and going out, ketamine is unavoidable. "We could spend money at the pub, or pick up, go home and get ketty," says 20-year-old Londoner Ruby*, describing an average night out with mates.

"It's seen as a very casual drug," explains 17-year-old Hannah*, also from London. Though she doesn't personally indulge during school hours, she knows friends who take the drug on their free periods – in the same way previous generations might have smoked a spliff.

The first time Hannah took ketamine, she was 15. She liked how it had been described by her friends – as "feeling funky and like being drunk". The main appeal was feeling disconnected from reality for a moment, existing in a problem-free space.

Due to its low price point, like weed – and, increasingly, cocaine – ket smashes across class boundaries. Last week it was reported that 2015 Love Island star Bethany Rogers faces up to five years in prison for possession. Meanwhile, in 2017, the Daily Mail reported that The Honourable Nicholas Knatchbull – the great-grandson of Earl Mountbatten of Burma, a godson to the Prince of Wales – had used the horse tranquilliser.

So – like Diet Coke or Calvin Klein boxers – it's affordable and transcends class boundaries. But what else is driving ket back into the limelight, particularly among teens?

Weed and ket
Photo by Emily Bowler

Though commonly known as a horse tranquilliser, ketamine was developed in the 1960s as a medicine for humans and used for surgical anaesthesia in the Vietnam War. It then entered the UK's 2000s free-party scene, before being commonly used as a comedown after-party tonic – take a bump, level out your uppers buzz, relax. Now, among some users, it appears to have become a substitute for an entirely different kind of drug.

In 2018 there was a sharp rise in teenagers using Xanax, a benzodiazepine, or "benzo". During the subsequent fallout, national media reported on the staggering levels of death-by-misuse, as well as several high-profile seizures of counterfeit pills – including the arrest of three London men who were selling up to 5,000 fake Xanax every day. In 2019, ketamine has taken its place.

"A lot of people I was doing it with were using it as a benzo," says 22-year-old Richard*. He came across ketamine a few years ago on his year off in Bristol – or, as he calls it, the Ket Capital of Europe, echoing a 2018 paper that named the city as the most coked-up in the EU.

Laura, part of a younger crowd, seeks a similar benzo-like respite when using ketamine. "I feel safe doing ket, but I don't feel safe doing Xanax – there's been too many horror stories about it," she says. "I haven't heard as many deaths from ketamine."

Both Richard and Laura mention the allure of ego death – a term used to describe both psychedelic and spiritual experiences involving the temporary loss of self. Take enough of a psychedelic dissociative like ketamine and you can completely disconnect from reality for what feels like hours – the climax of what Hannah mentioned about clocking out for a couple of minutes.

Sometimes that's scary, like Laura's experience at Boomtown festival, when "these paramedics rushed through for someone that was in trouble, but I convinced myself that I was dead and the paramedics were running around looking for my spirit". Other times? There's an appeal to getting out of your head.

"I went through a bit of trauma when I was nine years old, and the act of disassociating on cue whenever I wanted was something that actively appealed to me," explains Ruby, who took ket for the first time aged 17. "You can do some then not be completely part of reality for half an hour, then snap back out of it. But that's why it's really easy to start abusing on a daily basis, because you can tailor it to your day."

ketamine body paint
Photo: Everynight Images / Alamy Stock Photo

By the time she hit 19, Ruby was knocking back four grams of ketamine daily, as well as injecting. "It's not something I thought I'd be doing, going to the needle exchange aged 19. It's fucked," she says. Though her case may be extreme, many young users actively pursue disconnection: it's the whole point of taking ket.

"I know a lot of people who would do it to intentionally K-hole – they were like, 'Yeah, it's the best thing,'" Richard tells me (for the uninitiated, a K-hole is similar to an ego-death but less intense).

There's pure hedonistic fun to be had in getting wrecked. But when young teens are increasingly looking to divorce themselves from reality, it's clear there are other urgent factors at play.

Young people are experiencing worse mental health than ever before; there's a climate crisis, and those attempting to combat it, like Greta Thunberg, are shat upon by red-faced middle-aged journalists; no one has any money; politics is in disarray – so why not, as Timothy Leary said in 1966, "Turn on, tune in, drop out." Or in this case: rack up, snort, k-hole.

Of course, the dangers of this approach are obvious (see: pissing jelly, PTSD, flashbacks). "It's fucked me up; it's fucked me up, big time," says Ruby.

But as ketamine references continue to pop up on young, drug-adjacent meme accounts (@beam_me_up_softboi, @theseshrealm, the now defunct Ketflix and Pills), where you'll likely find a screenshot of someone proposing life drawing on ket as a legitimate date idea, or how it feels to be "kezzled off your head", it's hard to see ketamine's appeal slipping anytime soon.

@ryanbassil

All names have been changed.