The effects of ketamine
Special K, kit-kat or donkey dust, aka ketamine, is a powerful man-made anaesthetic that is also abused as a recreational drug.
Ketamine was developed in the 1960s for use in animals and was later approved for human use. It was used as an anaesthetic for wounded soldiers in the Vietnam War. It can also be used as a painkiller at lower doses. It’s more widely used in veterinary medicine, especially as a horse tranquilliser.
What does it do?
Ketamine stops you feeling pain. It can cause muscle paralysis. It doesn’t affect heart function and breathing, unlike other anaesthetics like morphine, which is why it was mainly used in babies and elderly people in the UK.
It has proven medical benefits in the right hands but when it’s abused as a recreational drug it can cause serious problems.
Risks of abuse
Ketamine gives you a spaced-out detached feeling as though your mind and body have been separated, sometimes called the K-hole. Some people are incapable of moving after taking it, and it may also cause hallucinations, panic attacks, and confusion.
As users don’t feel pain, they are more likely to injure themselves badly and not be aware of it. When mixed with other drugs and alcohol it has the potential to be fatal.
Ketamine can also lead to serious bladder and kidney problems especially in regular users. Painful urination, blood in urine, or a loss of bladder control are all symptoms of ketamine use.
In severe cases the bladder has to be removed as the damage is so extensive. Ketamine induced bladder syndrome (KBS) is a recognised medical condition.
How many people use it?
In 2013, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs review of ketamine estimated 120,000 people had taken it in a year.
The Crime Survey for England and Wales shows it is most commonly used by males in their early 20s.
"We've seen a rise in the number of people who need help and support with serious ketamine use. This is a dangerous drug and young people in particular need to be made aware of the risks," says Donna.
In 2014 ketamine was upgraded to a class B controlled drug. It’s illegal to have it even for your own use. You could get up to 5 years in jail for possession and up to 14 years for supplying.
Ketamine as an antidepressant?
When abused, ketamine can have tragic outcomes but research is being carried out into its efficacy as a potential antidepressant.
There have been US studies that have looked into this. Research in 2010 in rats suggested ketamine quickly stimulated connections between brain cells and rapidly reversed depression-like behaviour in rats that were exposed to stress.
A small 2014 study at Oxford University found some people with severe depression who hadn’t responded to conventional treatments responded well to the drug. Other people in the study had to withdraw, as they were getting no benefit.
The dosage of ketamine was much, much lower than the amounts taken as a recreational drug.