Some know it as a veterinary tranquilizer, others know it as a party drug. For others still, it might be a life-line, the only hope to get their life back from the throes of crippling depression. We are talking about a drug called ketamine or ‘Special K’.
Ketamine’s many names and uses make it a difficult drug to understand. The scientific research on ketamine is evolving so rapidly that not even medical professionals can’t agree on how it should be used.
This article takes all of the information about ketamine, or ‘Special K’, and breaks it down so that it’s simple, accurate, and concise. If you’re wondering about the many differences between using ketamine as a street drug and using it therapeutically, then you’ve come to the right place.
Most people first learn about ketamine when they hear about the street drug called ‘Special K’. Other names for the drug when used recreationally are: Ketalar, Ketaject, Vitamin K, and Super K. While this drug is not as widely used as Marijuana or some other illicit substances, it has a strong hold on certain niche markets, like the clubbing and raving scenes.
Although doctors and veterinarians began using ketamine in the 1960s, it wasn’t introduced into the party scene until much later. The trend actually began in India, in the Goa trance music scene of the 1980s, and made its way to the western world from there. By the 1990s, ketamine was a major force in the psychedelic drug scene throughout Europe and the United States.
Despite small ups and downs since its introduction in the ‘90s, Special K has remained a steadily popular drug among high school and college students. The US’s National Institute on Drug Abuse has found that 1.2 percent of high school seniors report that they’ve used ketamine in the last year. While that’s much lower than some other drugs, it’s still significant given the seriousness of ketamine’s effects and the dangers of its potential side effects.
An overdose of ketamine can lead to death. Even non-lethal doses can cause side effects like chest pain, memory loss, and trouble breathing. Those who use Special K recreationally often become addicted, and eventually lose their jobs, relationships, and lives to the drug.
“At this point, any new depression treatment that makes it to the finish line is a huge win.” That’s Dr. George Papakostas speaking to Time Magazine about the desperate need that medical providers have for depression medications. He says that whatever drug does make across that finish line is “going to have a major impact.”
That drug may very well be ketamine.
Despite its reputation as a street drug or a horse tranquilizer, multiple scientific studies have found the drug is a very effective remedy for a number of ailments (such as PTSD), but especially depression.
Ketamine, along with drugs like phencyclidine (popularly known as PCP) and dextromethorphan (often called DXM or ‘Robo’), belongs to a class of drugs called dissociative anesthetics. These kinds of drugs tend to give the users a ‘floating’ sensation, as if they’re detached from their bodies and their surroundings.
Special K is a particularly fast acting form of dissociative anesthetic, which is why it works so well as both a party drug and a numbing agent in surgeries. In medical settings, Ketamine is often used as an initial anesthetic before other, more powerful painkillers like morphine can kick in. But it’s not these anesthetic effects that make the ketamine drug so effective as an antidepressant.
In fact, doctors aren’t entirely sure what it is about ketamine that helps people overcome their depression. Many think that it has something to do with starting up the ‘synaptic plasticity’ of the brain. This is the part of the brain that has the ability to grow and change over time, and increased plasticity is a common effect of other antidepressant medication.
However it works, the scientific results are pretty clear: regular, therapeutic doses of ketamine helps eliminate the symptoms of depression.
One study from February of 2018 observed “significant improvement of depressive symptoms” in a double-blind clinical trial of 67 adults with treatment-resistant depression (a type of depression that doesn’t respond to other medications like Prozac). Further, the study found that the improvements in the patients were sustained throughout the entire 9-week period of the study. That’s not just a good finding, it’s a breakthrough for treating a condition that has long eluded medical professionals.
Although ketamine has not yet been approved in a prescription pill or nasal spray form for treating depression, there are treatment centers that can offer completely legal ketamine therapy for depression. One of these centers, based in Los Angles, is called Ketamine Clinics.
At these centers doctors are able to administer ketamine drugs in a controlled and calm setting through intravenous or infusion methods.
Although the ketamine drug used in therapy is technically the same as the Special K drug used in wild raves, the motivations and outcomes of the experiences are very different.
When people use Special K as a street drug, they are looking for a high. Some might be seeking a thrilling experience at a rave, while others might be trying to escape from a life that they find overwhelming. Many end up dangerously addicted to the drug after repeated use.
Almost immediately after the drug is ingested, the user begins to feel the effects of the ketamine. At lower doses, ketamine may merely make the user feel ‘dreamy’. But, at higher doses, ketamine can have extreme euphoric and hallucinogenic effects. When these effects are at their most extreme, the user can become immobilized and go into a ‘K-Hole’.
Ketamine’s effects on mobility and memory are so drastic that it is often used as a date rape drug. In this way, the high of Special K can quickly turn into a horrible low.
This dark side of ketamine is made more dangerous by the fact that recreational users are often getting their supply from unregulated sources, like the Chinese black market or the ‘dark web’. Unregulated drugs like this can be cut with toxic chemicals or other drugs, and they can have very inconsistent potencies, making it nearly impossible to determine a safe dose.
In short, ketamine is like many other street drugs when it’s used illicitly: it offers a quick, dangerous high that can easily lead to addiction.
John Abenstein, MD, the president of the American Society of Anesthesiologists, has said that “Outside of the clinic, ketamine can cause tragedies, but in the right hands, it is a miracle.”
It’s this miracle, and not a fun ‘high’, that people are seeking when they use ketamine for therapy.
Many people’s lives have been plagued by depression, bipolar disorder, and PTSD. People lose their jobs because they can’t find the will to leave their beds in the morning. Their friendships fall apart and their marriages often end in divorce. Some severely depressed people end up taking their own lives. These tragedies are all too common.
Ketamine therapy offers real hope for millions of people who struggle with these psychological problems daily. It’s especially important for those ‘treatment resistant’ patients who have found no relief from other treatments like SSRIs.
Even though there is not yet a prescription ketamine medication for depression, many people’s lives have already been changed by ketamine therapy in clinics. In fact, there is a whole Ketamine Advocacy Network whose mission is to “spread awareness of ketamine therapy for treatment-resistant depression, bipolar, and PTSD, and to make this treatment available and affordable for all who need it.”
Ketamine therapy is about so much more than a fun party or a weekend escape. It’s about healing lives that have been fractured by crippling disorders.
In its recreational drug form, ketamine tends to be a white powder or a crystallized chunk that can be broken apart. In order to get high, people snort the drug as lines of powder, take it orally in pill forms, or inject it intravenously using hypodermic needles.
All of these forms of recreational use present their own dangers, such as infection, the spread of disease through used needles, or incorrect dosing.
Using ketamine in a medical facility is a very different sort of experience.
The ‘route of administration’ (ROA), or how the drug gets into the body, is very important for ketamine’s therapeutic qualities to work. Most therapeutic doses of the ketamine drug are given intravenously.
The intravenous infusions are given over an elongated period, usually about a half an hour in length. This method allows the practitioners to control the dosage and to spread out the rate of delivery so that the drug can enter the bloodstream in a consistent and steady manner, rather than all at once.
Intravenous infusions also allow the drug to enter directly into the bloodstream. Other ROAs, like pills, can lead to a large percentage of the drug being metabolized by the body before reaching the brain. You can read more about why intravenous infusions are most effective on the Ketamine Advocacy Network website.
Therapeutic doses of ketamine definitely won’t send you into a K-Hole, but they can make you a bit woozy. In some cases, people have reported feeling dissociated, but these feeling are usually minor and can even be pleasurable. Still, patients must make sure to arrange a ride home with a friend or family member because they won’t be able to drive.
Many people find that they can go right back to work or school after their ketamine therapy appointment. Others prefer to head home and take a short nap. Either way, the anesthetic effects of the ketamine should be gone shortly after the session.
Although it varies from patient to patient, many people only require ketamine therapy once a week or less in order to see a significant or total reduction in their symptoms!
As we’ve mentioned above, a ketamine overdose is not pleasant, and can even be deadly. Although you don’t have to worry about this if you’re just taking therapeutic doses, those who use the drug recreationally must be very careful.
When someone takes high amounts of the Special K drug they can end up in a sort of catatonic state where they can’t move or talk. This is called a K-hole. Some describe it as a near death experience, and that’s not a good thing. It can be a terrifying and even traumatizing experience.
But a K-Hole is not the worst thing that can happen if you take too much ketamine. A ketamine overdose can also lead to vomiting, chest pain, seizures, and even death.
Depression has plagued humans for millennia. It was first described by Hippocrates as “Melancholia”, and although we know much more about the disease these days, the treatments that are widely available are far from perfect. This is why the advances in ketamine therapy are so exciting.
Doctor Thomas Insel has said that ““Recent data suggest that ketamine, given intravenously, might be the most important breakthrough in antidepressant treatment in decades.” That’s a big deal coming from the director of the Institute of Mental Health.
Ketamine may continue to be a dangerous street drug for some, but for others it’s a beacon of shining hope.
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