Known on the street as special K (among other nicknames), the illicit drug ketamine became a pervasive drug of abuse in the 1990s, particularly among youth. As the Foundation for a Drug-Free World explains, ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic that is used as a tranquilizer in humans and animals.

As ketamine comes in a powder and liquid format, it can be abused in different ways (i.e., it has different methods of administration). Ways people abuse ketamine include by injecting, drinking, snorting, or sprinkling the drug in cigarettes or on marijuana. H

How did a tranquilizer used in human and animal surgeries become a drug of abuse in mainly teen and young adult culture? The short answer is that ketamine was diverted from medical places and pharmacies to the street, where drug dealers used it new formats, like mixing it with other drugs and making capsules for swallowing. Ketamine provides users with a high, and if a drug has psychoactive effects, abuse is sure to follow.

Ketamine Abuse and Side Effects

Background Information on Ketamine

As the Center for Substance Abuse and Research at the University of Maryland discusses, ketamine was first created in a legal laboratory in 1962. In 1970, the US Food and Drug Administration approved ketamine for use in humans, and it soon became a battlefield anesthetic. Governmental authorities did not appear to anticipate or be particularly concerned about ketamine abuse. However, starting in the late 1970s, cases of ketamine abuse began to emerge across the nation. Drug dealers caught on to the value of ketamine and, as mentioned above, began to use it in formulations with other drugs or simply mixed additives into it (i.e., to get more out their supply of pure ketamine, they made ketamine products). Thus, drug dealers helped to spur the popularity and accessibility of ketamine on the streets.

Dealer-made ketamine products come in the following formats:

  • Powder
  • Crystals
  • Solutions
  • Tablets
  • Other injectable formats

After the mid-1980s, ketamine became increasingly popular in the dance scene. By 1999, governmental authorities recognized that ketamine had a roaring life as a club drug, and efforts were made to clamp down on its availability to the public. In that year, federal authorities classified ketamine as a Schedule III drug under the Controlled Substances Act. This designation reflects the dual truths about ketamine: This drug has legitimate therapeutic value, but it is highly addictive.

After this classification, ketamine controls increased, making the drug more difficult to obtain at the street level. When this occurs, in general, those who use drugs likely migrate over to a substitution drug. So, for instance, as ketamine primarily came to be a club drug, when the supply dried up in areas, people with a penchant for this drug likely substituted with other party drugs, like ecstasy.

Ketamine Statistics and Facts

Although ketamine’s popularity may have peaked in the 1990s, abuse of this drug persists today. The following is a selection of some recent statistics and facts on ketamine abuse:

  • Per the 2015 Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey, the following high schooler grade groups used ketamine at the following rates:
  • 12th graders: 1.7 percent
  • 10th graders: 1.3 percent
  • 8th graders: 1 percent
  • The MTF survey results from 2015 showed a significant decrease in ketamine abuse among high schoolers compared to prior survey years. In 2002, 2.6 percent of 12th graders and 2.2 percent of 10th graders used ketamine. In 2000, 1.6 percent of 8th graders did.
  • Per the National Forensic Laboratory Information System (NFLIS), in 2007, there were 2,319 cases of ketamine seizure reported, whereas in 2008, the number dropped to 1,538.
  • In 2006, per the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 2.3 million Americans in the 12-or-older age group had used ketamine at least once in their lifetime.
  • In 2006, NSDUH found that there were 203,000 Americans in the 12-or-older age group who used ketamine in the prior year.
  • In 2006, NSDUH estimated that Americans in the 18-25 age group were more likely than those in the 26-and-older age group to have used ketamine in 2005.

These findings, individually and taken collectively, reflect a particularly distressing point about ketamine abuse: Use is most common among youth – one of the most vulnerable demographics in American society. In order to understand the impact of ketamine on the body system and psyche, it is helpful to consider the symptoms and signs of abuse.

Symptoms and Signs of Ketamine Abuse

Individuals who take ketamine will experience symptoms whereas third party observers, like a concerned friend or family member, will see signs. Symptoms and signs are related (the internal feeling versus its external manifestation). For instance, a person may feel nauseous (symptom) and an onlooker may see the person vomit (sign). When individuals use ketamine, they will experience a host of side effects, which are the same as symptoms.

Short-term side-effects of ketamine use include but are not limited to:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Numbness
  • Depression
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Hallucinations
  • Amnesia
  • Sensation of being outside one’s body
  • High blood pressure (can cause a feeling of faintness)
  • Violent behavior or feeling aggressive
  • Feeling detached, as if in a dreamlike state
  • Sedation
  • Lethargy or fatigue
  • Chest pain
  • Poor muscle coordination
  • Muscle rigidity
  • Severe respiratory distress (can be fatal, though this is a rare reaction)
  • Coma
  • Seizures
  • Death

Symptoms and Signs of Ketamine Abuse

The most common side effect of ketamine abuse (and all drugs with addiction potential) is addiction itself. Today, in the clinical field of treatment, the term addiction has been replaced with the term substance use disorder. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), in order to be diagnosed with a substance use disorder, a person must exhibit at least two of a possible 11 enumerated symptoms within the same 12-month period. The symptoms of physical dependence and psychological addiction are included in this list of 11 symptoms. Stated most simply, a person who develops a physical dependence on ketamine will, over time, require more of this drug to achieve the desired, familiar high or other effects. This process of needing more of a drug over time is known as tolerance.

The danger with tolerance is that the more of a drug is taken, the greater the risk of exposure to harmful side effects. In other words, the body doesn’t build a tolerance while at the same time building greater indemnification against experiencing severe side effects, an overdose, or death. This is due, in part, to the fact that when the human body was evolving it did not take drug addiction into account. The body is simply not built to survive on increasingly higher doses of a drug, at least in most cases.

When individuals who have been regularly using ketamine stop taking it, they will go into withdrawal. A body that is physically dependent on a drug habituates to the frequent intake, so it’s no surprise the body reacts when it doesn’t receive the familiar dosage of the drug within a set period of time (as soon as a few hours to 24-36 hours, depending on the drug). The symptoms of ketamine withdrawal include but are not limited to:

  • Hallucinations
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Teary eyes
  • Excitation
  • Drug cravings

Typically, the severity of withdrawal symptoms depends on the length of ketamine use and volume of use. As noted, withdrawal often includes drug cravings, which can serve as a trigger for a relapse. For this reason, among numerous others, it is recommended that a person seeking to withdraw from ketamine use enrolls in a medical detox program at a rehab center or other suitable facility. Medical detox is the first phase of recovery treatment. The attending team of medical and addiction professionals can ensure greater safety in the withdrawal process and provide additional safeguards against a relapse (such as continual monitoring).

After the medical detox process is completed, the recovering individual will enter into the second phase of treatment: primary care for the addiction. A rehab that offers a full continuum of care will provide clients in recovery with a host of research-based treatment services. The following are some of the most common types of recovery services (some are considered primary; others are supportive):

  • Individual therapy (therapist-led sessions)
  • Group therapy (therapist-led sessions)
  • Group recovery meetings (member-led, usually organized according to the 12 Steps of Narcotics Anonymous and sister groups, or a non-faith-based model such as SMART Recovery)
  • Education about drug abuse (for the recovering person as well as family members, as part of a family program if the rehab offers such a program)
  • Family therapy (This is additive and does not replace individual therapy or group therapy.)
  • Complementary treatments (e.g., nutritional counseling, daily exercise at an onsite gym, yoga, massage, chiropractic care, and acupuncture)
  • Expressive therapies such as art and music
  • Animal therapies, which can include horses, dogs, cats, and even dolphins

However severe a person’s abuse of ketamine or other drugs, it is critical to keep in mind that treatment services are available, and they can be incredibly effective. At present, admission to a drug rehab center is considered the most widely recommended course of addiction to take in the face of addiction. Drug recovery services at a qualified rehab can help a person to achieve and maintain abstinence from ketamine abuse on a long-term basis.