Challenging Generation K: The Dangerous Rise of Ketamine in UK Club Culture

You might think it strange that a sedative which spawns confused, disassociated zombies at best, and anesthetized patients with no control of their limbs at worst, would be used to party in hedonistic, socially intense clubs. But, just this decade, ketamine has become a drug of choice on dance floors across the UK and the definitive drug for a generation of young clubbers. It’s the most divisive of the new wave of so called “party drugs” and its effect on club culture and nightlife is unmatched.

Ketamine was developed in the 1960s as a medical anesthetic. Contrary to popular myth, it’s not just for fools and horses; it’s a common anesthetic used on humans, particularly for anesthetizing children. Typically, not long after its invention people began experimenting with its psychoactive properties and it began to be used recreationally. It was considered an unusual hallucinogen and remained the preserve of a small minority of enthusiasts “in the know” for decades. Now, it’s suddenly one of the most popular and readily available drugs in British nightlife.

According to the 2013 Global Drug Survey (GDS), over half of UK clubbers reported having tried ketamine, over 30 percent in the previous month alone. Like the uptake of many new sub-cultures and drugs, ketamine is most favored by the young. Singles are six times more likely to have taken drugs in the past year than married persons, and those earning under £10,000 a year and students are twice as likely to uses drugs as those in full time work, according to the 2013 book Narcomania. Seventy percent of students have taken drugs, and last year national student publication The Tab conducted a survey that found 25 percent of students admitted to having tried ketamine, with over fifty stating that they used it every day. 

So, what changed? How did a rarely encountered hallucinogenic drug available for so long, suddenly become such a potent part of mainstream club culture, and what new dangers does it present? The drug is currently used in two quite distinct ways; for the short-term effect by taking bumps and lines in clubs, displacing uppers and alcohol, and increasingly by habitual users in couched social settings -- sometimes in alarming quantities. In Ibiza, seasoned drug users are known to refer to it as “the new weed.”

Ketamine & Club Culture

Within club culture the drug has had a divisive effect. Some clubbers, used to the MDMA-based culture of energy, unity and empathy since 1989, are confused, angered even, by the cultural shift. This shift was compounded by the explosion of mephedrone a few years ago and the aggression it brought. Huge names in dance music such as Seth Troxler and DJ Sneak have railed against the “ketamine hype.”

Tom Armstrong, who’s involved with the organization “Dancefloors Against Ketamine,” described it as the “quintessential ‘anti-party’ drug … If ecstasy is energy, ketamine is lethargy.” He anecdotally remarked: “Being in a room with such a downbeat vibe even took the fun out of MDMA, I felt like the only person interested in the party and after a few hours I got my coat and left.”

Tom’s frustration is evidence of an emerging divide in club culture. Ecstasy was the first time a drug, not alcohol nor music alone, were the main source of a club’s energy. Ecstasy floods the brain with serotonin and dopamine. It heightens the user’s experience and lubricates social situations. In a club, every tune sounds amazing and you constantly feel compelled to tell the person next to you just how much you hope they're enjoying it as much as you are.

Yet ketamine works to sedate, jamming neurotransmissions, separating body and mind. The club is harder to perceive and consciousness turns in on itself. Often, people who look lifeless and uncomfortable will claim to be having a wonderful time. Too many ketamine users in a club, and it becomes as disjunctive, erratic and strange as the incongruent thoughts of its inhabitants.

What needs to be understood is that modern club culture was forged around the effects of ecstasy. Drinkers go home at 2 a.m. and will spend half their time on the dance floor at max if they’re trying to impress the other sex. Raves just want lights and beats until the sun rises. After the so-called “second summer of love” in 1989, the very format of British nightlife changed. A methodology distilled in Ibiza and copied in London was filtered out through the music, in films and via cultural exchanges generally. Today, most alcohol-fuelled establishments emulate this club format in some very fundamental ways.

Michael Linnell, a drug-worker in Manchester who was interviewed for Narcomania, succinctly summarized the logic behind drug use; “If you want to go out dancing all night, stimulants will keep you awake. If you are suffering from emotional pain, you take a painkiller like heroin, and if you want to go on an adventure in your head, you take hallucinogens.” Ketamine violates all of these conventions and intuitions, yet it has, and will seemingly, continue to change club and drug culture as they evolve together.

Lost in a world of moving ceilings, vibrating kick drums, shifting vision, and fascinated by simple linear motion, ketamine certainly enhances the clubbing experience for many people, or thousands would not be taking it in clubs every weekend. Others might not like the drug’s influence, but users aren’t only doing it to follow fashion. People do enjoy it, even if they can’t remember any of the music and might as well have spent the night in a Yates’s.

Some are pessimistic about ketamine’s popularity among clubbers lasting; between 2012 and 2013, its use in clubs dropped from 40 percent to 31 percent, found the 2013 GDS. Historically, the vast array of illicit drugs used in clubs have for obvious reasons been primarily uppers; when a 4x4 beat is involved (House/Techno/Soul/Garage) the drug is mostly MDMA. But, ketamine isn’t about to disappear as its use now extends far beyond the dance floor.

Associated Dangers

The drug is more psychologically than chemically addictive. The desired effects of ketamine don’t last long -- an hour or two at most -- and up until very recently, before its reclassification in the UK in June 2014, the drug was cheap with the Internet making it easily available; 16 percent of users asked by the 2013 GDS said that they had purchased it online in the past year. More significantly, tolerance levels rise profoundly and quickly, and it’s a very easy progression from the regular use of ketamine in clubs, to starting to use it socially, domestically, and then habitually.

The 2013 GDS revealed that ketamine was the most reported substance to induce negative psychological effects among clubbers, and was second after alcohol for physically negative effects. More worryingly, unlike the connection between smoking and lung cancer, alcohol and cirrhosis, or LSD and psychosis, bladder damage through extensive ketamine use isn't a question of if, but when.

The phenomenon of ketamine-induced bladder damage only really entered the medical literature in 2007; simply put, no one had taken enough since 1960 to induce the problem. Yet work by the Global Drug Survey shows that by now, one in four users experience urinary symptoms such as pain passing water and blood in their urine. Since 2007, countless shocking cases have been recorded -- much to the delight of the tabloid press -- from the embarrassment of incontinence, to the horrific destruction of the bladder leading to its total removal. The effects are devastating and only months of heavy use are required to result in their occurrence. Even very occasional users commonly report experiencing “ket cramps” as the abrasive chemical passes through their body.

In a previous post on TalkingDrugs, one user explained how their relationship with ketamine began: “It was in the summer of 2006 that I first tried ketamine at a friend’s house in London -- I was studying at university and trying to explore the vast array of pharmacologically induced experiences available to British youth.” Things rapidly progressed, he adds, stating, “Over the next few years my relationship with the drug and the scene around it increased, peaking around 2009. Perhaps the strangest thing about the drug for me was that as I used it more, my tolerance increased rapidly despite significant gaps between use.”

Long-term users report experiencing less intense hallucinogenic effects, mostly just a weird and numbed sedation. The TalkingDrugs author described how their habitual use affected their life: “[M]y thought processes would become darker and more conspiratorial, although I never went as far as some friends who started raving on and on about the illuminati … the ketamine worldview was unconventional and intensived (sic) the darker side to reality. The physical and psychological damage the drug would start to cause for those around me was unprecedented.”

Heavy users spend hours of their day detached from their surroundings, their mucus runs thick with chemicals and their memory and speech are noticeably impaired. Whether in agony or bliss, they are completely unable to function as positive members of society. The desired effects of ketamine occur because the substance blocks brain receptors believed to be responsible for the formation of memories. So, rather predictably -- though with little evidence as yet -- some allege that the long-term damage may extend to memory and intelligence.

Ketamine as an Anti-Depressant

Earlier this year, just before the reclassification, research found that the drug might have some positive effects for long-term sufferers of depression. A study on the use of ketamine intravenous infusions in people with treatment-resistant depression was carried out by researchers at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Oxford.

Three days after the last infusion, depression scores had halved in 29 percent of the patients. In those that responded to the treatment, the duration of benefit varied widely, lasting between 25 days and eight months (median 2.3 months). “Ketamine is a promising new antidepressant which works in a different way to existing antidepressants. We wanted to see whether it would be safe if given repeatedly, and whether it would be practical in an NHS setting. We especially wanted to check that repeated infusions didn't cause cognitive problems,” explained the principal investigator Dr Rupert McShane, a consultant psychiatrist at Oxford Health and a researcher in Oxford University's Department of Psychiatry.

Most patients experienced some short-term “dissociative” effects and their perceptions were usually distorted slightly, but this only occurred while the drug was being infused and was not connected to the antidepressant effect. The doses given were small and the ketamine did not cause memory or bladder problems. Yet, some patients became anxious during the infusions, a few were sick, one fainted and some did not complete the course because they did not feel they were benefiting.

Clearly this early evidence of another potential medical use for ketamine should give us no reason to infer that street ketamine and recreational or habitual use is any lass dangerous. Val Curran, a professor of Psychopharmacology at UCL and an expert on ketamine, reasserted that the doses used in the study were, “very small compared to those that recreational users take … It certainly is not suitable for use as a regular antidepressant.” She continued: “Heavy recreational use of ketamine can lead to getting hooked and that can itself trigger or worsen depression.”

The Future of Ketamine on the UK Drugs Scene

Ketamine use is intertwined with a culture surrounding other new “party drugs,” legal highs and prescription pharmaceuticals such as Xanax and Nitrazepam. It’s not a problem that can be tackled in isolation. Centers like the Leeds Club Drug Clinic, one with the explicit aim of helping victims of the increasingly bewildering array of party drugs, are helping.

With regards to regulation, the UK government believes that the reclassification of ketamine as a class B drug will help deter users. The government’s drugs minister, Norman Baker MP, proclaimed that the reclassification of ketamine would have, “a value in giving a steer to people at the very least,” as “some drug users actually care about their bodies.” The efficacy of this move, though, in terms of reducing the harms associated with ketamine use is highly debatable.  People will continue to use, yet could be discouraged further now from seeking help for fear of criminalization. As always, therefore, education is the key. Unless users continue to be educated on the negative effects of ketamine, other than the embarrassment of K-holing in a club, long-term physical damage and abuse will not continue to fall.

At the moment, it seems more likely that addressing the issue of excessive ketamine use may come from within Britain's dance music community, as evidenced by the cultural the backlash that has already begun. Last year, Boomtown Fair, one of the UK’s largest dance music festivals, ran an anti-ketamine campaign/competition named, “You’ll be sadder without your bladder.” As the event organizers stated:

“Our primary reason for putting ketamine in the spotlight comes from the shocking medical stats that we have researched and collected from many events across the country. These show a significant increase in usage and dependency of Ketamine over other drugs in the past few years, particularly within the early 20s age group. Many users appear oblivious to the rapid addictiveness and devastating health problems, as well as the vulnerable situations Ketamine can create.”

No drug used excessively is without harm, though ketamine certainly presents a unique challenge thanks to its rapid rise in the UK club scene. It is incredibly important that users are fully educated on the risks involved with ketamine use in order to prevent the disastrous physiological (and potentially psychological) effects the drug can have.

*All photos provided by Liam Taylor Photography. To view more of his work, please visit here.