Before he had a baby and settled down in 2014, "Ketamine Kev," as he was known to his friends in London, spent many of his work lunch breaks in a K-hole. Kevin would snort a fat line at 1 PM, and by the time he got back to his desk at a digital marketing agency, he'd spent the last hour "floating weightless atop an undulating green sea" at the park down the road. Kev and his girlfriend would often invite their friends for dinner to indulge in a few grams of K and a spot of Xbox.
That sort of lifestyle would be incredibly rare in America, where ketamine remains an unpopular underground drug, but in Britain the dissociative is consumed casually. You'll see it at post-club chill out parties, music festivals, and universities; it's also been name-dropped by mainstream bands such as Chemical Brothers, Blur, and Placebo. Last year, the British DJ Scuba told his Twitter followers he would give them a bump of the drug if they voted for him in a competition. Special K is associated with British dubstep, deep house, and other music scenes—so much so that some devotees have campaigned against ketamine—but the drug is seemingly beloved by all classes. In October, cops caught a friend of Kate Middleton's family driving with "regretamine" all over his face.
The UK's love of K has not made it across the Atlantic, at least not yet. The Global Drug Survey 2015, an online survey of 100,000 drug users around the world, found that a quarter of British respondents said they had used ketamine over the last year, compared to 5 percent of American drug users. The Monitoring the Future survey of US students found in 2015 that only 1.6 percent of high school seniors had used ketamine in the past year, almost half the proportion compared to 2002, when the drug was more prevalent on the American clubbing scene.
So why do Brits like ket so much?
Ketamine was first synthesized in America in 1962 by scientists seeking a new anesthetic to replace PCP. Today it's used across the world in pediatric, emergency, and veterinary surgery—hence the "horse tranquilizer" tag—and it's shown promise as a method to treat depression.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, ketamine became popular in the illegal party and squatting scenes taking place in the south west of England. At the same time, it was also gaining traction amid the gay clubbing scene in London, where CK1, a term for consuming a mix of both ketamine and cocaine, was being used alongside GHB and ecstasy. Back then, Britain's rave culture—inspired by the MDMA-enhanced house and garage scenes in 1980s Chicago and New York—was growing exponentially, and illegal outdoor parties were giving way to huge corporate superclubs.
As MDMA went from being a subcultural phenomenon to a key player in the mainstream, ketamine piggy-backed on that drug's rise. Clubbers would snort it to ease ecstasy comedowns at a growing number of after-parties and chill-out events dominated by music genres like IDM, dubstep, and psytrance. It wasn't made illegal by the British government until 2006, but even after that, its popularity continued to grow.
A 2008 study of the drug in the UK by researchers at Lancaster University found that people took it because it was a seen as a sort of LSD-lite. One interviewee named Chaz told the researchers: "It's a laugh, a funny experience, a strange experience. What I like about it is that it doesn't last very long. I liked taking acid but it always went on for too long." It was also cheap (until recently, it could be bought for as little as $20 a gram), and the supply—thanks largely to people importing it in bulk in liquid form from Indian pharmacies—was plentiful.
The drug comes with a number of nasty side effects, however, including severe kidney damage and addiction. In recent years, a number of high-profile overdoses drew national headlines in the UK, such as Nancy Lee, who had regularly used ketamine from age 16 to her death at 23. One consultant neurologist I spoke to in 2014 told me he had 40 young ketamine-damaged patients on his books. Over the previous two years he had carried out five bladder removals and one kidney transplant due to the drug.
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Americans are no strangers to using harmful recreational substances, but according to Adam Auctor, who runs the Bunk Police, a drug testing organization that attends EDM events and music festivals in the US, ketamine has an image problem even among drug users.
"The majority of Americans who participate in substance culture view ketamine use negatively. It's seen as an antisocial substance due to its sedative properties at higher doses," Auctor told VICE. "Many also perceive ketamine use as too extreme. 'Why would you take a horse tranquilizer?' is a common sentiment. Many people see it as no different than something like heroin or oxycodone: escapist, trashy, and too extreme for most people who use MDMA." That opinon was echoed by ketamine experts VICE spoke to in the UK and by respondents on one of Reddit's drug forums.
Because ketamine never had the breakthrough moment in the US it had in the UK, it never got to the point where it become a cultural touchstone, and never got a boost in popularity from, say, a rapper's shoutout. "Ketamine is just not something that's mentioned at all in music, mainstream or otherwise," Auctor said. "It's also not something that many people consume in public."
Americans perhaps have less need for ketamine than drug users in the UK. When it comes to comedown panaceas, Americans have better access to high-grade marijuana. Plus, unlike the British, they can far more easily obtain the dissociative drug PCP (a cousin of ketamine), which is easier to manufacture. This doesn't mean Americans are necessarily choosing PCP, a.k.a. "angel dust," over ket, but, according to the National Forensic Laboratory Information System, there were 5,000 PCP seizures made by US authorities in 2014, compared to just 1,138 for ketamine.
In 2014, I spoke to Marcel Ketman, at the time one of the world's largest suppliers of ketamine on the dark web. "I sell a lot to the US, but this doesn't mean the drug is particularly popular there," he told me. "The US is tech-savvy and has a massive population. But in terms of sales, per capita the UK far outstrips the US."
The UK government increased penalties for ketamine possession in 2014, but there's obviously still a great deal of demand. This January, a series of raids on eight factories in India uncovered 1,200 kilograms of ketamine that India's Central Board of Excise and Customs believed was being produced for foreign markets such as the UK.
Some people believe that Americans will follow their British cousins down a K-hole. Auctor says that judging from analysis his team have carried out online, Triad groups in New York City may have become involved in selling the drug, imported into the US from Hong Kong.
A retired online drug seller also thinks ketamine could be the next big thing stateside, especially with the genre Yanks call EDM growing in popularity. "K has actually taken off quite a bit in America, it's just not reported much," he told VICE. "It's mainly trendy clubbers using it as a cool drug, having bumps here and there. It seems America is way behind the UK dance music-wise—they're at raves with dummies and whistles for fuck's sake—and the drugs always follow. So K will follow. Give it ten years and they'll all be wobbling around in warehouses with techno blasting till 8 AM on a Tuesday morning."
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