A Reply to
Time Magazine,
1997-10-20, pp. 56-57
by Peter Meyer


I T'S 5:30 ON A SUNDAY MORNING, BUT the 400-plus kids at the Fantasy Ranch dance club won't be making it to church. Instead, amid sweeping lights and the raw thumps of the aptly named song Insomnia, they sing the praises of the most recent drug to hit central Florida: Special K. "It's the bomb," gushes Tom, a sweaty 15-year-old with a struggling goatee. "It will make you like this," he says, rolling his eyes up as if staring at his brain. "It's dreamy. You see the lights, like, bend."

Tom's friend Sara quickly pulls a glass vial from her bra. After a glance around for security, she holds the black-capped vial under a pulsing light, revealing the powder she first came across in July. Now, she says, "I'm into it like every weekend." Sara is 16, and what she's into is an anesthetic sometimes administered to people but, more commonly, to cats and monkeys. Generically called ketamine, street K is most often diverted in liquid form from vets' offices or medical suppliers. Dealers dry the liquid (usually by cooking it) and grind the residue into powder. K causes hallucinations because it blocks chemical messengers in the brain that carry sensory input; the brain fills the resulting void with visions, dreams, memories, whatever. Sara says that once, after snorting several "bumps" of K, she thought other kids on the dance floor had been decapitated. "But I mean, I really knew they had heads. I was just, like, 'This is so weird.'"

The first thing to notice here (apart from the implicit lament that the "kids" are singing the praises of a drug rather than going to church to sing the praises of the Lord - this in 1997) is the tactic of suggesting a danger, or supposed danger, to children of the use of a psychoactive material, be it marijuana, LSD or, as here, ketamine. Not only does the author begin the article with an account of adolescents using the drug, but the article is entitled (in capitals) "IS YOUR KID ON K?" (with "K" in RED — danger!) If this is intended as a subliminal inducement of fear in parents, it is not very subtle.

Nobody denies that children require protection. Parents' desire to protect their offspring is a powerful instinct which is far older than the human species. Children and adolescents are not sufficiently experienced in the ways of the world for us to expect them to act as adults do, that is, in a responsible manner. To act responsibly is to acknowledge that one is responsible for the consequences of one's actions, and to act with due regard for possible consequences (especially those that might involve harm to others). One does not drive at 150 km/hour down the main street of town during lunch hour — or if one does, and someone is killed, one is held to be responsible.

Insofar as children and adolescents are not regarded as fully responsible for their actions, restrictions upon their actions, for their own protection, may be justified. Most Western countries set a minimum age at which individuals are permitted to consume alcohol; in many places, if you sell an alcoholic drink to someone younger than eighteen you commit a crime (and perhaps the buyer does too). Legislation restricting sales of alcohol to minors has been enacted for the protection of the young. These laws do not apply to adults, who are considered responsible for their actions (in this case, for the consumption of alcohol).

So legislation prohibiting the sale (and perhaps use) of ketamine by minors can be justified. Perhaps the same applies to other psychoactive substances, in particular, marijuana. But the present legislation in most Western countries prohibits the sale and possession of marijuana by adults. In the case of marijuana (ketamine, etc.) use we are not considered responsible for our actions. In effect, adults are being treated as children, with the government implicitly asserting that we are not mature enough to consider the consequences of our actions (smoking marijuana, using ketamine, etc.) and therefore we must be protected.

Clearly anyone who considers themselves to be an adult cannot agree with this governmental paternalism. Basically governments have no right to restrict the actions of adults unless such actions are or would clearly harm others. If an adult wants to take some drug and dance all night at a club (or take some drug in the privacy of their own home), then he or she has a perfect right to do so, and laws which deny this right are an unconscionable violation of individual liberty.

And, apparently, enticing. After 25 years of underground recreational use by big-city clubgoers and New Age types (Timothy Leary was a fan), K has exploded in the past few months onto the suburban drug scene. In February, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration warned that use is increasing at teen "rave" parties, the marathon dances that have spawned a new youth subculture. Anti-drug czar Barry McCaffrey's office added K to its list of "emerging drugs" in 1995; the office's latest "pulse check" of the nation found K "all over." St. Louis, Missouri, Tampa, Florida, and suburban New Jersey have seen a rash of animal-hospital break-ins by thieves hunting for ketamine.

The author does not cite any studies which have been done which provide evidence supporting his assertions. "K has exploded ..." based on anecdotal evidence about adolescents at dance clubs? The DEA has "warned that use is increasing" ... so the DEA would have us believe that we need them even more (for what?). The drug czar has added "K" to his list ... well, well, what will be next? His office did a "pulse check" ... a what? ... Jeez — are we really expected to take this stuff seriously? Amusing, perhaps; informative, no.

The surest sign of K's popularity, however, is that it is seeping into pop culture: In an X-Files episode earlier this year, agent Fox Mulder had a rogue doctor dose him with ketamine in an attempt to recover memories. The Chemical Brothers, an electronic-music group, recorded a song called Lost in the K-Hole for their most recent album, which went gold last month. "K-hole" is jargon for a bad trip — too much K causes massive sensory deprivation, immobilizing and detaching a user from reality. This is not your father's groovy toke. London researcher Karl Jansen says the drug even reproduces the brain's chemical reaction to a "near-death experience."

The X-Files episode conveyed little accurate information as to the effects of ketamine, and assistance in the recovery of lost memories is not normally regarded as one of ketamine's properties. But if this drug did help recover memories then wouldn't this be useful in therapy (so often concerned with repressed memories)? Perhaps even self-therapy (to which the A.M.A. is opposed in general)? We're told that "too much K ... [detaches] a user from reality." And what is "reality"? And whatever it is, what's wrong with detachment from it? With ketamine you always return to the usual attachment to "reality", so what's wrong with an occasional excursion into "detachment"? It might even be therapeutic (especially since materialist/consumer-capitalist "reality" is enough to drive anyone insane if they have to spend all their waking hours within it).

In medical usage ketamine is administered in amounts of 1 gram, whereas a psychedelic voyager will typically take one-tenth of a gram, and in such doses the drug is generally harmless. It is true that one's attention is concentrated more on inner phenomena than on the objects of the senses (is this what the author means by "sensory deprivation"?), and that one does not feel like moving about, the distance between one's mind and one's body having temporarily increased (is this the "immobilizing effect"?), but for many people this is a desirable state to be in (for an hour or so). And who is to tell them that it is not or prevent them from being in this state (especially someone who has not experienced this state themselves and doesn't know — by experience — what it is)?

The author suggests that users of ketamine may have a "near-death experience" (with the implicit suggestion that this could be pretty scary) though this is not implied by Jansen's alleged report (source not cited) that "the brain's chemical reaction" (whatever that is) while on ketamine is similar to that (measured?) in people undergoing near-death experiences. Many people report positive results from near-death experiences, so perhaps this is a desirable state — especially since with ketamine you don't have to risk physical death to attain it.

All this attention has alarmed people like Lieutenant Bill Queen, who works narcotics in the Pinellas County sheriff's office, near Tampa Bay. He had never heard of K before December. Now, his undercover officers can buy it every week. "These kids don't know what they're getting into," says Queen. "But I can tell you, this is another drug that's going to be abused and cause harm." What really steams officer Queen is that he can't do much about it. Snorting K may be foolish, but it's not a felony. If someone without a medical or veterinary license is caught with ketamine in Florida, the maximum sentence is 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. Only a handful state's attorneys have taken the time to prosecute K cases when the stakes are so tiny. For his part, Queen hasn't arrested anyone with K. "We could," he says, "but waiting," gathering evidence against dealers who sell it to his undercover cops. Next year, the legislature will consider a bill to "schedule" ketamine as a controlled substance, which would stiffen penalties.

Lieutenant Queen is reported as saying: "But I can tell you, this is another drug that's going to be abused and cause harm." In the current government newspeak a drug is "used properly" if it is used in accordance with the dictates of the government and allied organizations (such as the A.M.A.), and it is "abused" if it is used in contravention of these dictates. So any unauthorized use of ketamine is "abuse", and Lt. Queen seems to think it will increase. Heavens! An increase in the frequency of an unauthorized activity! Certainly cause for alarm among the government control freaks.

As for causing harm, it's not ketamine use that's likely to cause harm, it's the criminalization of it. Just as now, where people's lives may be destroyed if they are found in possession of an ounce of cannabis, so people found with a vial of ketamine might have their lives ruined as a consequence of prosecution and perhaps conviction and imprisonment. Such harms far exceed those that might result from an occasional misuse of ketamine (e.g. attempting to bicycle down a steep hill while high on ketamine, as John Lilly once did, to his regret). Rather than criminalization of ketamine use we should have decriminalization of cannabis use — that is, if we really want to practice harm reduction.

A swift and simple solution, right? Well, no. Outlawing drugs like LSD (in the 1960s) and Ecstasy (in the 1980s) was easy since they have no government-acknowledged medical use and aren't made by licensed firms. But ketamine and other drugs that are actually medicines are different. Senator Joseph Biden discovered how delicate drug politics can be last year when he designed a bill to control ketamine and the so-called date-rape drug Rohypnol more closely. At the time, rapists' use of the latter to sedate victims had sparked an outcry, but the Rohypnol-controlling part of the legislation died under pharmaceutical-industry pressure. The industry, whose political action committees last year donated $2.1 million to Republican candidates and $714,000 to Democrats, doesn't want the added administrative burdens and U.S. government oversight that come with scheduling a drug as a controlled substance. (Rohypnol was already scheduled, but the bill would have regulated it further.) Each unit of a scheduled drug must be scrupulously accounted for, and some doctors won't prescribe drugs stigmatized by that heavy designation. In the case of ketamine, neither Parke-Davis, which developed the drug, nor Fort Dodge Laboratories, which makes the veterinary brand Ketaset, opposes tighter restrictions. But the industry's supporters in Congress are loath to change industry-friendly precedent, which allows drugs to be scheduled only after lengthy administrative review. (States are more willing to flout industry wishes. So far eight have added the drug to their books.)

Lost in these political battles is a basic question: is ketamine really dangerous? Maybe not. The British government decided not to closely restrict ketamine because it could not prove that K's effects were severe. Most drug-overdose deaths result from circulatory or respiratory failure, and ketamine doesn't usually depress these functions. Dr. Alex Stalcup, medical director of a California drug-treatment center, says the effects of K are "basically like being really, really drunk. It's really not a demon, not compared with the other stuff we're seeing with kids now," including smokable versions of heroin and speed.

As the author in effect says, ketamine seems not to be a dangerous drug ... at least the British government (which can call upon competent medical researchers) could not show it to be so. And, as the author points out, ketamine is not associated with the usual causes of death from drug overdose. As noted above, the psychedelic dose is about one-tenth the clinical dose, so an overdose is unlikely to have any harmful effects. The medical literature even reports accidental overdoses in surgery (many times the psychedelic dose) which had no lasting ill effects. Compared to the addictive drugs — heroin, cocaine and nicotine — ketamine is benign.

Still, the possibility of K-high youths getting behind the wheel of a car is alarming, and ketamine was used in several rapes in the 1980s.

And the possibility of alcohol-intoxicated "youths getting behind the wheel of a car is [also] alarming", but does the author advocate the criminalization of alcohol (a return to the Prohibition Era - though that term applies equally well to our own age)? Probably alcohol is used in vastly more rapes than any other drug. Why should the use of ketamine — whose beneficial use in professional and in self- therapy is now known — be criminalized when alcohol, which is a major cause of road accidents (not to mention its role in domestic violence), is legal in practically any quantity?

Stalcup and others agree that ketamine can be addictive. "Some people get very habituated," says Ann Shulgin, a longtime drug researcher. "I've heard some uncomfortable stories — highly intelligent people who just don't seem aware that they're getting into a dependency."

In the sense of creating physical dependency (where there are actually long-term changes in brain chemistry which require continued use of a drug to maintain normal functioning) ketamine (unlike heroin, cocaine and nicotine) is not addictive. "Dependence" is a fuzzy concept (much of the population could be said to "depend" on television, or to "depend" on coffee in the morning). As with any psychoactive substance, the risks and benefits of ketamine should be carefully examined before using it. That some people find it attractive means that such people should be warned of the possibility of over-use — not that such people should be forbidden from using it. Adults are adults because they take responsibility for their actions, and such actions are best taken in the light of all available information.

A prominent experimenter with ketamine was John Lilly, a neuroscientist who pioneered communication with dolphins, and who was played by William Hurt in Altered States (1980). Lilly recalls that a doctor first gave him ketamine in the '70s for migraines. Lilly then began injecting himself with K and at one point was taking 50 milligrams an hour, 20 hours a day, for three weeks. He became convinced "that he was a visitor from the year 3001" and that he was talking to aliens. Today, Lilly is 82 and lives in Maui. He says he hasn't done K for "about a year" and believes it's not addictive. "Go out and try some," he urges. But he also says ketamine should be illegal. "It's dangerous if you don't know what you're doing," he says. "You could fall down."

John Lilly's experience certainly sounds interesting. What would it feel like to be a visitor from the year 3001? And aliens might have some very interesting things to say. Why should we be warned away from this experience? If aliens are there, we should talk to them anyway we can.

What Lilly is reported to have said, "It's dangerous if you don't know what you're doing," is true of many activities, some involving drugs and some not. Most of these activities (e.g. sky-diving) are perfectly legal — so why shouldn't activities involving drugs be legal (provided they do not threaten harm to others)? If, when using a drug, "you could fall down", someone thinking of using this drug should certainly know about this possible effect — which is why we need drug education rather than drug prohibition.

Back at the Fantasy Ranch in Tampa the kids have never heard of John Lilly or his friend Timothy Leary. "No, man, are they dealers?" asks one. When the deejay spins a song called A Little Bit of Ecstasy, cheers go up. "K is really fun," says Beth, 19, as she sashays away. "But I always know I'll be tired the next day."

At the end of the article the author takes us back to the image of barely pubescent adolescents engaging in unapproved and unauthorized activities. Beth sashays away to the dance floor, and after a night of dancing it should not surprise us if she is tired the next day. But the author suggests (without basis) that ketamine results in tiredness. Sounds better than an alcoholic hangover anyway. In fact moderate use of ketamine in a relaxed setting results in no tiredness the following day.

So overall, ketamine emerges from this article in a rather positive light, even though the author appears to express sympathy with the "war on drugs" — but this is practically obligatory when one is writing about proscribed drugs for publication in the mainstream media.

Finally we should note that for someone to evaluate the benefits and risks of ketamine without having experienced it is like someone discussing the merits of a symphony without having heard it. But for prohibitionists that is irrelevant, since they are not interested in the possible beneficial effects of psychedelics but rather in restricting their use — mostly from fear that their authority might be threatened if people are allowed to do what they want. It comes down to a question of who is to be master of our lives — ourselves or those who would control us for their own purposes.

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