Ketamine is a drug that is often misunderstood in our society.
Many of the misconceptions that surround it stem from the media sensationalizing the drug when abused recreationally. The headlines try to lure you in by calling ketamine by its street name of Special K and advertising that by ingesting this drug you will end up taking a trip to what is called the K-hole. Like other drugs, ketamine can be dangerous when abused and taken in high doses, however, when it is administered in a clinical setting by a properly-qualified practitioner, ketamine is very safe.
In the 1960s, ketamine was developed as a dissociative anesthetic to be used in human and veterinary medicine. It very quickly was recognized for having fewer depressive effects on breathing and blood pressure than other anesthetics, as well as having a broad margin for error. For these reasons, the World Health Organization lists ketamine as an essential medicine. To further tout ketamine, the Red Cross identifies it as irreplaceable and declares that it has an indisputable role in humanitarian assistance and pre-hospital and disaster medicine.
Unfortunately, when you push aside the good and focus on the bad, ketamine can seem like a terrifying drug. At high doses, ketamine does some frightening things which make it hard to imagine why it is used recreationally. Where ketamine is a dissociative drug, it makes the user feel detached from reality and themselves. Crank up the dose and these feelings of dissociation get so intense that you lose control over your body including the ability to speak and move around. These alterations in reality also lead to illusions and hallucinations. It’s a feeling sometimes described as being in a state between intoxication and a coma. You are essentially powerless over your own experience.
This is where a very important distinction must occur. The troubling side effects mentioned above are seen when people abuse ketamine in high doses outside a medical setting. When ketamine is used in a controlled environment, as an anesthetic or for the treatment of depression, the dosage is more modest. At these lower dosage rates, people may experience a mild state of hypnosis, pain relief, and an altered perception of sight and sound. Those who have taken advantage of ketamine for depression often describe their experience as euphoric and deeply relaxing.
When considering ketamine as a treatment option, it is important to separate the negative image that street users have given this drug compared to the immense benefits it provides in a medical context. Ketamine, since the beginning, has been an instrumental and safe drug and it continues to amaze the research community with its versatility.