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A horse in a club
Image: Steve Beech / Time Out

Bargain bags, K-holes and ‘zombie clubbers’: how ketamine became Britain’s go-to party drug

When, and why, did the country go mad for K? And is it *really* killing the dance floor?

India Lawrence
Written by
India Lawrence

‘It always strikes you when you’re not expecting it,’ says Oliver*, 23. ‘Your vision shifts and you start seeing these geometric shapes. Or you can feel like you’re in this giant chamber, with weird sounds and reddish, purple neon lights.’

Oliver is talking about experiencing a K-hole: taking too much ketamine and going into a dissociative, hallucinatory state. Regulars on the club scene might be familiar with this feeling, having experienced it themselves or previously shepherding a friend through it (AKA, not exactly what you want when Horsegiirl drops ‘My Barn My Rules’ and you’re trying to dance).

Ketamine, K, special K, wonk, donkey dust: whatever you call it, use of the tranquilising drug, typically coming in the form of tiny white shards of crystal, has been on the rise in the UK for years now. The end of March 2022 saw record amounts of ketamine seized by police and border forces as the quantity of the confiscated drug rose by 884 percent from 208kg to 1,837kg. The usage stats are also climbing, and now an astounding one-in-20 young people have done K. Unsurprisingly, use of the drug is concentrated in the country’s biggest cities: Manchester and Bristol use it the most. London isn’t far behind. 

A meme saying 'the UK if there was a tax on K'
Image: Ketflix and Pills

While ket – commonly known as a horse tranquiliser – used to be reserved for smoke-filled living rooms at post-club after parties, now, it’s everywhere. From festivals to house parties, gigs and club nights, it can be hard to avoid the white crystalline substance. It’s also seeping into pop-culture. Last year, Dazed magazine coined the term ‘ketamine chic’, meanwhile a drugs meme account, Ketflix and Pills, grew to 139,000 Instagram followers, and a ‘ket-a-manger’ flag was spotted at Houghton Festival. 

But, perhaps understandably, not everyone is on board. In May, DJ Salute started a conversation on Twitter about the drug ‘ruining’ club culture, transforming clubbers into immobile ‘zombies’. Now, despite its raging popularity among punters, some people in the scene – particularly DJs – want to see ket banished from the dance floor. So how did a widely-used medical anaesthetic become the UK’s favourite party drug? And is it really changing the vibe in the dance?

The rise and rise of ketamine

Mainly manufactured in India and China, ketamine first appeared in the UK around 20 years ago. It was made an illegal Class B drug in January 2005, when only a recorded two percent of 16 to 24-year-olds had tried it. According to the government’s data on drug misuse, that figure had tripled by 2020, rising to around six percent.

‘Ketamine has always been part of rave and club culture,’ says Dr Karenza Moore, a sociologist at Newcastle University who studies drugs and dance culture. ‘Although it's more visible now, it’s not a new thing.’

Over the past two years, Moore has surveyed ketamine users and their friends at more than 30 club nights in the UK. Alongside Crew, a Scotland-based drugs harm-reduction charity, she has been conducting a ‘Safer Partying’ ketamine study, looking at its use among young people. ‘What’s changed is that ket used to be more of an after-party drug: people would take it when they got home and wanted to extend the night,’ says Moore. ‘Now, use has gone up, plus where people are doing the drug has changed. There are more people taking it in clubs and at festivals.’  

Ket used to be more of an after party drug – now use has gone up, plus where people are doing it has changed

The pandemic changed things, including the kind of drugs people were using to get wavy. ‘Ket seems more acceptable in the scene, post-pandemic,’ Moore says. According to Adam Waugh, training co-ordinator at drug testing and harm reduction charity The Loop, the popularity of K is a proven hangover from lockdown partying. 

‘From research done during lockdown, we found there was a decrease in the amount of people who were taking drugs like ecstasy and cocaine because they weren’t going out partying as much,’ Waugh says. People were looking for an escape that wasn’t an upper, so they turned to ket. ‘It's an anesthetic drug so it knocks people into a dissociative state,’ says Waugh. ‘That’s something that could be desirable at home.’ When things started opening back up, ket simply stuck around. 

There’s probably an economic motivation behind ket’s soaring popularity, too. Averaging at £20 a gram across the UK, ketamine is significantly cheaper than other popular rave drugs like MDMA, which tends to go for £40 a gram, and cocaine, which can cost up to £100 for the same amount. ‘The UK ketamine market is pretty strong and of good quality,’ Waugh says. ‘And, compared to other countries in Europe and worldwide, the UK’s ketamine is cheaper and stronger.’ Unlike a lot of other popular drugs, ket in the UK is typically not cut with many of the grim chemicals you see mixed with widely-used class As – it’s most likely to be mixed with MSG, which shares ketamine’s shardy appearance. Cocaine, however, can be cut with anything from laundry detergent, to battery acid and benzocaine, a local anaesthetic. 

A bag of white powder
Photograph: Shutterstock

‘Ketamine still costs the same amount that it did 20 years ago – in terms of inflation, it should be about £40 a gram now, but it’s not,’ says Moore. It’s also falling at wholesale price. Earlier this year, Vice reported that a kilogram of ketamine fell from £8,000 to £5,000 on Telegram, the encrypted messaging app favoured by many drug dealers. It’s no surprise, then, that ket has boomed among students and 16 to 24 year olds, who are battling high rents, extortionate living costs and a tough job market.

Not only that, it’s also ‘really easy to get hold of ketamine on social media platforms,’ according to Dr Moore. Rather than reaching a dealer via a phone number, young people are now able to find their fix at the click of a button, buying ketamine via platforms like Telegram and even Instagram. 

So, what’s the appeal?

Oliver likes taking K when he goes out clubbing in London. ‘In Dublin there are a bunch of people doing it, but nothing compares to the UK,’ he says. ‘The dancefloors do feel a bit livelier in Dublin.’ But the subdued atmosphere brought on by hoardes of ketty dancers isn’t an issue for Oliver. ‘I got tired of hangovers, and I don’t really like uppers at all because of the horrible comedowns,’ he says. ‘Ket seems like a good way to get in an altered state without too many bad repercussions the next day. It also enhances the music a lot.’

The lack of after effect makes it a win-win for shift workers too. ‘A lot of our interviewees said they've got zero-hour contracts in retail and hospitality, so they might get shifts on quite short notice,’ explains Dr Moore. ‘They said if they have an [ecstasy] pill on a Friday that means they can’t work on a Saturday. Whereas if they have ket on Friday, they’ll be fine for Saturday.’

Ket seems like a good way to get in an altered state without too many bad repercussions the next day

Other ket users who spoke to Time Out cited euphoria, increased energy and fun-but-mild hallucinations, all without the hangover or depressing comedown, as the pros of taking it on a night out. ‘It's like going to a theme park, or being in a Kraftwerk song,’ says Oliver. That said, long term use of ketamine can have incredibly serious and awful consequences. The drug can cause severe bladder problems (often called ‘ket bladder’), and in some cases, dependence and addiction.

‘Zombies’ on the dance floor

In the 90s, raves were packed with dancers off their bonces on ecstasy. Eyes wide, jaws clenched, MDMA made crowds energetic, jumpy and full of love. Today, it’s a different story. Young clubbers are going out to get ketty. They’ll be giggly, confused, or in some cases, strumbling around or temporarily paralysed. 

Earlier this year, DJ Salute tweeted: ‘There is far too much ket on dancefloors in the uk imo. everyone should have fun but it sucks seeing people kind of just standing around like zombies and not dancing. I have so much more fun dancing in a club when the people around me are more engaged.’

Many chimed in with the conversation to agree that yes, ket had taken over the UK’s clubs, and not in a good way. ‘It’s ruining the scene,’ one person replied. But as with most internet discourse, the truth is not that simple: we can’t definitively say whether more ket equals a worse atmosphere in the dance. The problem is that the line between feeling wobbly off a few bumps and falling into a full hallucinogenic trip is very, very fine.  

‘I've had times when I’ve taken too much in the club and been incapacitated, but I’ve also had it at afters where I had a sort of panic attack, that was pretty scary,’ Oliver says. ‘I got really in my head and felt like my heart was beating really fast and coming out of my chest for three hours. I went to A&E and they said it's all in your head.’  

Oliver isn’t alone in this. Part of the reason behind increased visibility of ketamine is down to the fact that more people are misjudging their doses (all the ket users we spoke to for this article highlighted that moderation is key), or are mixing it with alcohol or other drugs and ending up in the welfare tent. (Although when taken alone, K is fairly safe, combining it with alcohol leads to a much higher risk of a fatal overdose.) 

‘At some events that I’ve worked at, up to 90 percent of the medical calls that come in about an unconscious person will be related to ketamine – someone will be in a K-hole,’ says The Loop’s Waugh. During K-holes, users report feeling a semi-dreamlike state, with vivid hallucinations and ‘mystical’ thoughts. From the outside, however, they could appear totally unconscious. ‘Ketamine is blocking signalling from the brain to the rest of the body and external stimuli,’  explains Waugh. ‘The person will be unresponsive to pain, and if you were to shake them they probably wouldn't respond. They are switched off to the external world.’ 

It’s not going away

The ket boom is here, there’s no doubt about it. But rather than asking why ketamine is so popular right now, maybe we’d be better off considering what the raging use of an anaesthetic tranquiliser says about modern day Britain? 

‘We know a lot of young people are struggling at the moment,’ says Waugh. ‘And ketamine as a drug effectively knocks people out, so it could be reflective of wider mental health issues amongst young people in society.’ But ‘getting ketty’ has been part of the dance music scene for years. It’s only now that there are far more people misusing it, albeit often by accident. 

Drugs will come in and out of fashion (remember Mcat?) and ketamine will likely reach its peak, but it’s not likely to disappear completely. ‘Ket has always been controversial, but people forget that at the beginning of rave culture, people used to take LSD and speed,’ says Dr Moore. ‘It wasn’t just MDMA, which has come to be associated with the scene.’ 

What might the raging popularity of an anaesthetic tranquiliser say about modern day Britain? 

K is just another ingredient in the ever-expanding cocktail of mind altering substances that punters are consuming on the dance floor – and probably is no more of a vibe-killer than clubbers filming every other DJ drop on their phones. ‘I actually think that most young people just roll with whatever drug everyone else is on,’ says Moore. ‘Young people like adding drugs to their repertoire. I don’t see ket not being part of the rave scene any time soon. It’s become pretty embedded in the culture.’ 

And while the clubbing purists might not be able to banish the substance from the rave completely, we can all agree that lots of users need to wise up about avoiding K-holes (or worse) and educate themselves better about how to use it sensibly. Otherwise, it’s a strain on welfare workers and it can turn the night into a dud if one of your group is literally unconscious. 

So, if you do plan on going out and taking ketamine, just make sure to watch your dose. And for goodness sake: don’t mix it with alcohol. That way you can have a safe, fun time – without ruining experience for others (especially when ‘My Barn My Rules’ drops). 

Contribute to Crew’s ‘Safer Partying’ ketamine study here

*Names have been changed.

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