Down the K-hole: How Ketamine Became Tel Aviv's Drug of Choice

Meet the successor to LSD, cocaine and Ecstasy – the drug of the generation.

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From "KETAMINE: JUST SAY NEIGH" by Katie Anderson.
From "KETAMINE: JUST SAY NEIGH" by Katie Anderson.Credit: Katie Anderson
Shlomo Kraus
Shlomo Kraus

The 1960s were the heyday of psychedelia, cocaine flourished in the 1970s and 1980s, the 1990s saw a lot of Ecstasy pills being dropped, and today you can bet that the second decade of the third millennium will be powdered with traces of lines of ketamine, which is now reshaping nightlife and figuring in the world of culture.

The drug, mostly called K and Special K, is often referred to as “a horse anesthetic.” It has in fact been around for about 50 years (after having first been synthesized in 1962 by American scientist Calvin Stevens) and was momentarily popular in the 1990s, but it is only during this past decade and mainly in recent years has it really flourished; not only in the extent of its use but also in the total change in the user’s profile.

If in the past it was the province of fearless cognoscenti, today many mainstream young people are starting to discover a party drug tailor-made for the current generation: It is relatively inexpensive, has a strong effect and enters and leaves the body rapidly. But they are ignoring the risks the substance poses, both physical and psychological.

In Berlin, for more than a decade now, ketamine has been an integral part of the average party animal’s nightlife and in recent years it has also gotten star billing in England, where the number of users under the age of 24 has doubled and is continuing to rise steeply, especially among college students. These kinds of numbers show up in other European capitals as well, and the trend is featuring in the United States and in Israel, too, though still to a lesser extent.

In August a theater in the trendy Brooklyn neighborhood Bushwick premiered a show called “Ketamine – The Musical,” which is devoted entirely to the substance. It sold out instantly. Anya Sapozhnikova, one of the directors of the production, attributed this to ketamine’s currently being the dominant drug on the scene and, in her view, the one most closely identified with the aesthetic of these times – just as cocaine was for the New York nightclub set in the 1970s.

The country where ketamine has become a real scourge is China, especially southern China and Hong Kong. A report revealed that the number of people under age 21 in Hong Kong who use ketamine soared from 1 percent in 1999 to an amazing 76 percent in 2006.

Many people are disgusted and confused by the way the drug is flourishing and wonder how the substance, which was known and available for decades, is now being so enthusiastically embraced not only by party people but also by academe and the medical profession. Articles and studies have proven ketamine’s efficacy in treating and healing chronic depression, even in cases where other treatments have failed. And if that were not enough, the pharmaceuticals and cosmetics giant Johnson & Johnson is in the late stages of seeking approval from the American Food and Drug Administration for a ketamine spray for home use. So why has ketamine had such a bad reputation until now?

Berlin to Tel Aviv

The first evidence of use of ketamine for other than its original purposes was recorded at the start of the 1970s, close to the start of its commercial production. Apparently the drug’s current popularity in Israel has to do with its status as a fixture on the dance floors of Berlin. Tom Givol, an Israeli psychonaut (explorer of altered states of consciousness) who lives in Berlin, tried K for the first time in 2013 at a club in Tel Aviv, but only in Berlin was he exposed to the drug as a way of life.

“Ketamine is on an interesting intersection of underground techno, fetishism and queer lifestyle. Therefore it’s not surprising that it is the drug of choice at Berghain, a club that combines precisely these elements,” said Givol.

Ketamine (illustration).Credit: Haaretz

The way ketamine affects the brain and other parts of the body is significantly different from the way other popular drugs work. Ido Hartogsohn, a sociologist and historian of consciousness-altering drugs and editor of the psychedelic magazine Lapsychonaut says ketamine belongs to the dissociative family of drugs (which some see as a sub-family of the hallucinatory drugs).

Drugs like MDMA (the active ingredient in Ecstasy) or LSD cause heightened stimulation of the brain through the release of substances that encourage flow of information and work mainly on serotonin or dopamine. The THC in marijuana works on the same principle, though in a slightly different way.

Ketamine, however, works in the opposite way: It “settles” on receptors called NMDA, the function of which is to transmit signals between areas of the brain responsible for cognitive functions, neutralizes them and in effect creates a disjunction between the senses and the areas of consciousness, which explains the “out of body” experience that characterizes the use of ketamine.

Ketamine creates a hallucinatory effect not by intensifying information but rather by turning off some of the senses. Fans of psychedelics who have experienced the drug usually describe it as one that isolates consciousness from the surroundings. Instead of looking outwards, it compels thought to look at itself. The use of ketamine blocks out the external world and leads to self-reflection that increases with the dosage.

Glass ampoule of ketamine.Credit: VOISIN / Phanie

Hence, too, the social criticism of ketamine, which is always considered a kind of stepchild in the drug family. Many see it as an egoistical, anti-social drug that turns the user into a detached zombie. The most extreme condition of detachment to which ketamine can bring its users is the “K-hole,” a dissociative condition reached after use of large quantities of the drug that is manifested in bodily paralysis, particularly of the extremities, while the mind continues to rush.

Among users of the drug there are differences of opinion as to whether a K-hole is a disaster for the user or in fact a goal, and there are many users who say the buzz begins only when they start to lose control of their bodies. In any case, the main risk stems from the impossibility of planning exactly when you will enter the K-hole, since the effects of different dosages vary among users, and users are liable to enter a K-hole without having planned to get there – and suffer profound anxiety.

Yotam Avni. Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

Though ketamine is considered the perfect drug for electronic music, it is not certain that everyone is pleased about that. Tom Armstrong, a DJ and editor of the online magazine “Sabotage Times,” argued in an article that ketamine is an “anti-party” drug and that it splits dance floors into a collection of individual and unresponsive egos.

However, ketamine fans are not quick to agree. “As a DJ, this doesn’t bother me,” says Yotam Avni. “I have no preference for people being on MDMA rather than ketamine, but there is no doubt that the latter turns the crowd around me into zombies. The atmosphere is harsher, there is a darker feeling.”

A., the proprietor of a popular bar in downtown Tel Aviv, finds ketamine to be a rather sociable drug. He says he designed the space he opened this past year while being inspired by ketamine, with a lot of velvet, warm walls and soft sofas. “Berlin is alienated and therefore the K there is alienated,” he says, “but the moment it enters the mainstream, everyone takes it wherever he wants. In my own case, for example, it makes me more sociable. I have always liked humor and K is a funny drug. It puts parts of your body and your brain to sleep and it makes you more foolish.”

Not addictive, but ..

The current consensus is that ketamine does not lead to physical addiction that causes painful withdrawal symptoms. However, this doesn’t mean that mental addiction is any easier. Many people who were interviewed for this report talked about how ketamine has become an integral part of their daily routine, even with no connection to partying. One reported that at a certain stage he “couldn’t even clean the house without a line of K.”

A common effect of frequent use of ketamine is serous damage to the bladder. This leads not only to repeated visits to the toilet but also to bleeding, pain and even surgical removal of the bladder.

Regarding damage to the body, ketamine is not up there with other street drugs, mainly because it is a veteran medical substance that has undergone many trials and is produced under supervision. Cases of death caused directly by ketamine use are rare, but there are many cases of deaths as an indirect result of using it – because of accidents and especially due to mixing ketamine with other drugs, which can indeed make its use deadly.

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