The age of K: how ketamine became the decade’s defining drug

Ket therapy labs have swept the US, recreational use is more popular than ever and pop culture references are everywhere you look. Here’s how a drug once associated with delinquency and seediness became the 2020's most sought after narcotic.

I was lying in a hospital bed wondering if things could possibly get any worse. It was 6am. I’d almost completely sobered up, about 12 hours after dislocating my hip in a fight with my best mate. The fight wasn’t serious, but he won. He’s a lot bigger than me, but it looked for a second like I had the upper hand. Then he hit me with an RKO. It’s a wrestling move. Look it up.

It stopped being funny pretty quickly. I needed help. Mate went and got it and soon the entire event – Oktoberfest in a massive white tent near the O2, now filled with people in lederhosen wondering what the chuff was going on – was stopped. Music silenced, lights on. Pretty soon it started being funny again, although not for me. An ambulance literally drove inside the tent and paramedics had to scissor my lederhosen off me (for I, too, had been lederhosened). Then I was carted off, still smelling of Bavarian beer.

Of course, I don’t remember much of this. Too many steins. Friends pieced it together after the fact. My recollection starts after numerous x‑rays and a night in A&E. As my brain came back online I was told there were no broken bones, but my hip was not currently in its socket. Having it shoved back in ranks as one of the worst pains known to humankind, the doctors told me, with their eyes. I’d need an anaesthetic.

We’re going to give you some ketamine,” the doctor announced. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it?”


I wasn’t aware they were dishing it out in hospitals, that’s for sure. I also didn’t have a key to hand. Thankfully, I didn’t need one: I’d be breathing it in through a sort of oxygen mask that was promptly strapped to my face. Turns out the NHS knows how to get the good stuff. I inhaled and up it went, through the nostrils, past the brain and into the above, taking me with it. I entered a happy dream state and all sense of personhood departed me. I was an amoeba, or a single molecule, free to exist in a peaceful ether without pain or responsibility. When I returned, my hip was back in place and the world was normal again.

11 per cent of the world’s population have tried ketamine”

It’s easy to think of ketamine’s recent entrance into the medical mainstream as separate from its illicit use among clubbers and stone circle dwellers. But the two stories are intrinsically linked. A few months ago the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that 11 per cent of the world’s population have tried ketamine. In the last three years the number of people getting wonky” (christ) on the /​r/​ketamine subreddit has more than tripled. Many reported that K’s popularity surged during the pandemic. The UK’s ketamine use in the past year is now the highest on record, while ketamine seizures (by the authorities, not the medical kind) in the US are up 349 per cent since 2017.

Meanwhile, ket pulsates through the veins of pop culture. It was found in the bloodstream of a Korean film star, Chrissy Teigen’s kitchen designs and the running order of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop podcast. Characters take ket in The White Lotus, Industry, The Night Of and upcoming comedy Rotting in the Sun (“Every gay man does ketamine,” says one character). DJs are complaining there’s too much ket in UK nightclubs and models are walking down runways with KETAMINE CHIC” written on their clothes. A recent Rolling Stone article explored the prevalence of ketamine in San Francisco’s gay clubs, with a headline asking: Does the queer scene have a K problem?

Gimme ket, gimme ket,” warbles Brutalismus 3000’s Victoria Vassiliki Daldas on the penultimate track of her band’s debut album Ultrakunst, which reached number 11 in the German pop charts in April. In March, before the release of their Billboard-charting collaborative album Scaring the Hoes, rapper Jpegmafia took to Danny Brown’s podcast and mentioned a recent near-death experience after taking way too much ketamine”. Brown replied: Ketamine is starting to get a positive look.”

One of my coolest experiences was that I was flying a spaceship above a really beautiful landscape and just feeling this incredible peace”

KAIA ROMAN, co-founder of KetaMD in Silicon Valley

Ket once had a dodgy image, associated with disassociating, seshing, getting fucked up. A 2017 Mixmag article titled The rise and fall and rise of ketamine” was illustrated with a dazed, fag-smoking cartoon horse, nodding to K’s use as an animal tranq. But now, clever, respected people like author Michael Pollan are championing the drug, explaining that yes, ketamine is a psychedelic and yes, it can be used to relieve pain, depression and addiction. Ketamine therapy labs are springing up all over the US (perhaps too quickly in fact – many have already gone bust), with 12 in Manhattan alone. And there’s now one in the UK, offering anyone who can afford it a guided tour through their own brain that could help them get through whatever they’re going through.

I forget my identity, I forget everything,” says Kaia Roman. Time and space and matter and physicality no longer exist. I’m still me, but I don’t remember that I have a name or a body. One of my coolest experiences was that I was flying a spaceship above a really beautiful landscape and just feeling this incredible peace.” Roman is not a seshy kethead, or at least not the kind you’d find at Swagchella at three in the morning. She co-founded ketamine therapy company KetaMD and runs group ketamine retreats in Silicon Valley.

I think we live in a very dissociative time,” says Oatmilkandcodeine. I think people want to escape and have a kind of fantasy world.” Oatmilkandcodeine is the kind of person you’d find at Swagchella at three in the morning. In fact, he runs Swagchella, a party he started in London and has since taken to Berlin, Vienna and New York. We’ll come back to him, too. But first, this is how we got here.

It all started in the 1950s with something called phencyclidine, a drug that was developed by scientists at Parke-Davis pharmaceuticals (acquired by Pfizer, the Viagra people, in 2000) in Detroit. In animal studies, it caused an excited drunken state in rodents, but a cataleptoid immobilized state in pigeons. The researchers were amazed with its unusual pharmacology,” wrote Edward F. Domino, one of its early researchers, in Anesthesiology, published in 2010. The scientists weren’t happy with it, concerned that too many of the lab monkeys were emerging from their drugged state into a delirious stupor. They binned it off, but Professor Calvin Lee Stevens kept exploring its derivatives, believing the drug’s anaesthetising properties could be useful. He came up with CI-581, which anaesthetised the monkeys, but not for too long.

CI-581 was given the name ketamine and, in 1964, given to a human being for the first time. Early volunteers described strange experiences like a feeling of floating in outer space and having no feeling in their arms or legs,” as Domino put it. He told his wife Antoinette about the odd effects he’d seen and credits her with coining the term dissociative anaesthetic”. He describes his studies of the drug as an attempt to tame the ketamine tiger”. He also wrote: In my ignorance I never anticipated that these agents would be abused.” Then: I am very sad and warn all that the ketamine tiger’ still ravages unsuspecting humans in the form of Bump, CatValium, K, Ket, Kit Kat, Kizzo, Special K, Super Acid, Vitamin K, Monkey Mix, or Monkey Business.”

A K‑holed’ soldier is much easier to load and transfer away from danger”

Anonymous Navy Seal medic

Monkey Business was approved by the FDA in 1970. While hippies were protesting against the Vietnam War – taking acid, turning on, tuning in, dropping out, etc – American army medics were giving ketamine to soldiers to help them cope with intense pain. As well as pain relief, K offered soldiers a dose of amnesia and eased anxiety while also raising their heart rate, which helped with blood loss. A K‑holed’ soldier is much easier to load and transfer away from danger,” said one anonymous Navy Seal medic.

Before long it was being taken recreationally, beginning on the American West Coast and then quietly spreading. In a 1975 edition of underground comic The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, the titular trio of stoner siblings meet a rock star friend in Hollywood, who offers them a rack of white lines. Gee, thanks! I haven’t had good cocaine in a long time!” say the brothers. Oh, that’s not cocaine, boys!” replies their friend. That’s ketamine! It’s very decadent! What it does, it makes you have a three-day nightmare!” The following panel depicts a sky filled with lightning and dragons.

Around this time, ketamine was introduced to John C. Lilly. If you’ve seen Ken Russell’s 1980 drug horror flick Altered States, you’ll be at least somewhat familiar with the ketamine fever dream that was Lilly’s life. Ketamine is never named in the film, but it follows crazed scientist Edward Jessup (William Hurt) through a series of drug-induced escapades featuring sacred monitor lizards, rabid chimps, a sensory deprivation tank and a sort of half-man-half-sheep with seven eyes, all of which pushes Jessup to the brink of leaving his physical body and going into a state of proto-consciousness.

It’s all based on Lilly, a physician who once called himself a peeping Tom at the keyhole of eternity”. His achievements include inventing the isolation tank, a soundproofed sarcophagus filled with warm salty water designed to numb its inhabitant to all external stimuli. Lilly was known to hang out with fellow countercultural psychonauts like Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsburg and, in his early sixties, he discovered ketamine.

Lilly was fascinated by human consciousness and spent hours floating in his tank under the influence of K, mescaline and LSD. Newcomers to this story may not be surprised to hear that things soon went west. His trips were plagued by Solid State Intelligence (SSI) and Earth Coincidence Control Office (ECCO), malevolent cosmic – i.e not real – entities, which he had invented, who he thought were out to get him. Lilly and contemporaries like D. M. Turner and Marcia Moore wrote extensively about the effects of ketamine while gradually surrendering their minds to it. Turner called K a Frankenstein molecule”. As she wrote in her book Journeys Into the Bright World, Moore thought she was pioneering a new path to consciousness”, but became addicted to K and disappeared in 1978. Her skeleton turned up in a forest two years later.

Since 1961, Lilly had been trying to talk to dolphins and, throughout the 80s, that began to consume his research. It was a whole thing. Meanwhile, ketamine was becoming increasingly valuable to doctors around the world as a painkiller and anaesthetic. In 1985 the World Health Organization declared it an essential medicine”. At the same time, its underground popularity continued to grow. Some time in the 80s, hippies from Bristol visited India and found that you could buy ketamine legally over the counter there. Generously, they brought it back to the UK and began selling it on the cheap.

Then came rave. After the second Summer of Love in 1988, acid house swept the UK, supercharged by the arrival of ecstasy and brought back by ravers in Ibiza. But in the southwest, the Bristolian squat rave scene was awash with K. It soon spread to the gay clubs of London where CK – a mix of coke and ket – became popular along with GHB. As British tabloids started describing raves as drug supermarkets”, ketamine became widely accepted as the perfect way to simmer down after all those uppers. Its comedown appeal was immortalised in 2001 by Miami duo Phoenecia on Brownout, an album of sluggish, post-rave IDM supposedly written about the effects of ketamine.

On 1st January 2006 the British government made ket illegal. Ikr: it’s mad to think it was technically kosher until then. But a few drug laws never stopped anyone. Ravers kept getting ketty throughout the noughties, with a 2008 study titled It’s the most fun you can have for twenty quid: Meanings, Motivations and Consequences of British Ketamine Use” concluding that kids saw K as something of a light acid alternative. That same year, in In Bruges, Colin Farrell’s hapless hitman Ray complains about being blanked by Jordan Prentice’s diminutive actor Jimmy. Well, he was on a lot of ketamine,” says Chloe, Jimmy’s dealer (Clémence Poésy). After Chloe explains what ketamine is, Ray exhorts: You can’t sell horse tranquilisers to a midget!”

The medical benefits of ket include help with PTSD, addiction, depression and pain”

In 2013 the FDA started using terms like breakthrough treatment” while researching ket’s potential use as an antidepressant. A year later recreational ketamine casualties prompted the British government to reclassify the drug from Class C to Class B, meaning anyone caught with it got a tougher sentence. But that summer a ket drought swept the UK. A clampdown on illegal ketamine sellers in India (who finally restricted its sale to prescription only in 2013) sent shockwaves around the global K community. Oxfam even set up a charity to help victims” of the drought. Just 56 kilos of ketamine were seized in Britain between 2014 and 2015, a 70 per cent drop on the year before.

But then gangs from China came through. Although ketamine manufacture is intensely complicated, underground Chinese cabals began synthesising the stuff on industrial levels. The government tried to crack down and, in 2016, even asked the UN to ban the production of ketamine worldwide. But thanks to WHO’s fondness for the drug, the UN refused, and by 2016 Vice was declaring the drought over: It will only be a matter of time – maybe a decade or two – before the global supply of plant-based drugs, such as cannabis, cocaine and heroin, is eclipsed by the trade in man-made substances designed to mimic, at a far cheaper cost, the effects of intoxicants that grow out of the ground.”

The end of the drought signalled the soft beginnings of ket’s glow-up, the start of its evolution from punchline narcotic into the high-achieving woman’s drug of choice,” as Glamour recently put it. In his psychedelic 2018 New York Times bestseller How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan doesn’t even mention K. But the book precipitated a shift in attitudes towards mind-altering substances and pretty soon he was telling Joe Rogan that ketamine seems to reset the brain in a way that many people are finding helpful.”

In 2020, Kaia Roman, Mike Zappy” Zapolin and Warren Gumpel founded KetaMD, offering convenient at-home ketamine treatments” during the pandemic. The same year they trademarked the word ketatation”, used to describe their meditative, K‑fuelled sessions with patients. Among their previous clientele are former pro basketballer (and Khloe Kardashian’s ex) Lamar Odom and literal real-life Wolf of Wall Street Jordan Belfort.

Roman spent 25 years working in marketing with companies like Google and Twilio, and wrote the self-help book The Joy Plan in 2017. Off its success, she was invited to a wellness retreat in Costa Rica, where she took ayahuasca, her first psychedelic encounter, and it was a profound experience. After giving a lecture on her book back in the States, she was approached by Zapolin. He was like Yeah, yeah, ayahuasca, but have you heard about ketamine?’” she remembers. “‘Because ketamine is like the best part of the ayahuasca journey. It’s short, there’s no purging” – being sick – and there’s no, like, darkness, but it also creates neuroplasticity, and it’s legal’.”

That word – neuroplasticity – refers to the fucking up and reorganising of the brain that psychedelics make possible. Roman booked herself into a ket clinic and soon she, Zapolin and Gumpel started their business and perfecting the ketamine lozenge, a dissolvable ket pill that was perfect for posting to patients. They hired a team and designed the KetaMD program: anyone with a prescription could book a session, hosted over Zoom, during which a trained nurse, or, to begin with, Roman herself, would talk to patients about what they wanted from the treatment, then watch patiently as each of them knocked back the lozenge and drifted towards infinity.

They host in-person ketatations, too, in Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Silicon Valley and Utah, often for groups of colleagues looking to maximise their productivity or improve their working relationships. Everybody’s got their stuff they’re going through in life,” says Roman. So even people that are just working on peak performance or enhancing their creativity need to clear out some old thought pathways so they can really be in their flow state.” Roman has hosted lots of IRL sessions herself. I lead them in a meditation, then everyone has the medicine while we listen to special frequency music.”

The medical benefits of ket include helping with PTSD, addiction, depression and pain. Roman explains that Jordan Belfort used ketamine therapy sessions to help with anxiety, before flying to Mexico and defeating a painkiller addiction by experimenting with ibogaine.

A recent Bloomberg article compared KetaMD’s sessions to psychedelic pioneer Ken Kesey’s acid tests of the 1960s. There are now an estimated 600 ket therapy labs in the US. Roman also tells me about NeuroDirect Ketamine, a cream that you rub on the back of your neck, providing all the medical benefits of regular K but with no dissociative, trippy effect,” she says. You could rub it on and drive to work.”

By 2020 people were complaining that ket jokes were cringe. But they kept coming. In 2021, Sydney Sweeney took ket to Hawaii in The White Lotus, only to lose her bag and inadvertently fuel a binge for Murray Bartlett’s highly strung hotel manager. The same year saw the launch of the first high-street clinic to offer psychedelic therapy in the UK, prompting a Guardian article titled The ketamine blew my mind: can psychedelics cure addiction and depression?”.

Then in 2022 came ketamine chic”, a trend coined by Dazed in an article celebrating the ketsthetics” of dressing like an unwashed urchin”. If it had one, ketamine chic’s poster child was the musician and promoter Oatmilkandcodeine. I feel like people are labelling the style of a drug, which doesn’t really make sense to us at all,” says Heartc0regirl, a friend of Oatmilkandcodeine who’s joined our FaceTime call. It has nothing to do with a drug. People seem to want to label a youth culture with drugs, just for the shock factor, you know, when actually it’s just like how we dress.”

Oatmilkandcodeine and Heartcoregirl. (Photo courtesy of David Kratomberg, creative director, and @irl4ngel, photographer)

Heartc0regirl and Oatmilkandcodeine both wear positively eclectic outfits covered with Minions and love hearts and ponies, while making music broadly classifiable as R&B or shoegaze or ambient trap – it’s actually really good, and includes lyrics like, Oh, I’m in love with the oxys /​Oh, I’m in love with the ketamine.” They’re either friends or a couple (they’re not putting a label on it) and they play down ketamine’s influence on Gen Z culture, although Oatmilkandcodeine does take K semi-often. I don’t really like to drink, so I take ketamine instead,” he says. It feels less intense to me than drinking and I can, like, socially do stuff when I’m on ketamine. If I’m going on a night out, I’ll take ketamine instead of drinking alcohol. And maybe if I’m watching some psychological horror movie. Ket’s good for movies.”

Turns out he’s right. I’m beginning to feel like a potted plant,” says James Spader’s character in Cronenberg’s Crash, some time after my third snifter. Suddenly everything relates to ketamine. Scenes become worlds. Instagram filters seem to mimic the k‑hole. It’s your body that leaves your soul, not the other way round,” says a voice on Vegyn’s recent album. In an unrelated interview, former golden boy of trance James Holden tells me: A good friend of mine once told me if you take enough ketamine you can talk to dolphins.”

The point of all this is not that we’re all dressing like Joe Exotic, getting ketty and turning reality upside down just so we can escape’ reality”

Maybe Lilly was onto something. Artist and author Timothy Wyllie, perhaps the most recognisable ket enthusiast of the 21st century, once published a book called Dolphins, ETs & Angels: Adventures Among Spiritual Intelligences, promising to teach its readers to swim with wild dolphins and learn how to listen to their quiet tendrils of telepathic communication”. Speaking in a Vice documentary shortly before his death in 2017, Wyllie said, you should do K at least 500 times before you even start to understand it.”

This, I think, is it. The more you investigate ketamine, the less it makes sense. I guess because we live in such a strange time,” says Heartc0regirl. With the internet, everything’s so virtual, and the virtual world is quite psychedelic and surreal and strange. With all these filters and these hyper-realistic depictions of things and people, I feel like ketamine goes hand in hand with that.”

The 60s had acid; the 80s had coke; the 90s had pills. The 2020s have ketamine. But the point of all this is not that we’re all dressing like Joe Exotic, getting ketty and turning reality upside down to escape”. Ket can benefit us all. Somehow.

I’ll say at this point that I got a press pass to a music festival to research this article. I decided not to specify the exact angle of my story. I saw Alex G, Shygirl and Oneohtrix Point Never, but it all blurred into a kaleidoscope and quickly disappeared over the horizon. Half the people there might have been on K, but they were too within themselves to offer any insight as to why. My body is a crash-test dummy,” wrote John Lilly, who soon lost the respect of the scientific community due to the lack of objectivity in his experiments.

In his final years, Lilly reported on a sort of celestial pyramid scheme at the furthest reaches of the consciousness: Guides at each level above ours pretend to be God as long as you believe them. When you finally get to know the guide, he says, Well, God is really the next level up.’ God keeps retreating into infinity.”

And such is ketamine. Until we understand it, it will continue to mystify us, and everyone will keep doing it. Taming tigers is a mug’s game, anyway.

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