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Why has ketamine become the Gen Z drug?

Has enlightenment given way to numbness? Credit: Getty

December 22, 2023 - 4:00pm

Last week the Government released its yearly report on drug use in the UK. A key revelation in the statistics is the continued rise of ketamine — increasingly the drug of choice for members of Generation Z. Last year, 3.8% of 18-24-year-olds reportedly used the substance, though poll numbers for drug use are consistently below the actual levels of usage. This is up from 3.2% the year prior, and 1.3% in 2016-17.

Ketamine, also known as ket and K, has become a staple of the British university and festival experience, and is also taken outside of the British party scene. In October, actor Matthew Perry was found dead in a hot tub, reportedly drowning after taking ketamine. This week, the British press covered the death of 26-year-old Rian Rogers, who had become addicted to the drug to the point where his bladder shrunk to the size of a marble. What, then, is behind the exponential rise in users of K?

Also functioning as a horse tranquiliser, Ketamine has been around for decades, used medically as an anaesthetic for procedures. Its recreational use began in the 1970s and gained some prevalence in the UK’s Eighties and Nineties rave scene. However, it was in the 2010s when the drug became synonymous with British nightlife.

Ketamine is fairly unique in terms of how it is used. It is taken as a party drug, yet it is not a stimulant like cocaine or MDMA. The drug is also significantly cheaper than cocaine, usually costing around £20 a gram. Ketamine is a dissociative anaesthetic — meaning it creates a sense of detachment from one’s environment, numbing the body — and this is where its popularity lies. DJs complain that modern dance floors are full of “zombies” on ketamine. In a sense, this is K’s purpose — to kill the self. 

The dissociative element of ketamine destroys the self and subsequently the problems the self faces — which fall into the void behind the drug’s high. Users describe a feeling of floating, a separation from the body, and euphoria as the music and lights of the dance floor become far more enjoyable when one is further immersed in the environment.

The ketamine experience sometimes culminates in the zenith of the destruction of the self — the K-hole. Users enter a form of drug-induced coma or sub-anaesthetic state, where the body struggles to move and the mind separates — the ultimate disconnection from the body and the physical world it inhabits. 

In an interview, documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis describes ketamine as an attempt to “literally try and obliterate the self” — which he contrasts to prior generations’ drug of choice. LSD, he says, seeks to “explore the self”, whereas MDMA “allows you to free yourself from the self and you just become a happy self”. 

Ketamine has also seen a breakthrough in experiments as a therapy drug of choice, used to deal with anxiety and PTSD, particularly in American clinics. Yet for UK students sitting around a dirty kitchen afterparty in the early hours of Sunday morning, the search isn’t for enlightenment, only release.


Fin Carter runs Narcosis, an outlet covering drug-related news and violence.

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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
7 months ago

I don’t understand the need for innovation. Can’t young people just stick to tradition and lick toads?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
7 months ago

I don’t know about licking toads, but I’d wager a lot of women would complain they’ve kissed a few frogs

John Riordan
John Riordan
6 months ago

Toads are a bit like policemen – there’s never one around when you need one.

James S.
James S.
6 months ago

I’m not surprised that Ketamine has been rediscovered as a drug of abuse. And us Boomers had another street version of it, PCP, back in the day. The problem with Ketamine is that even when used in a medical setting (and I use it as an anesthetic adjunct for its profound pain relieving effects), it can lead to very troubling hallucinations as well as dissociation. And I doubt that Zoomers are using it on its own, but mixing it with all manner of other drugs, which risks dangerous synergies.

I’ll stick with a nice whiskey!

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
7 months ago

I was getting stuck into ketamine 20 years ago, this is hardly a new phenomenon. It’s popular now because it’s dirt cheap and easy to get hold of, no other reason. Eventually the police will clamp down on it and something else will take its place

Robbie K
Robbie K
6 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

If it stops people fighting then I expect they’ll just let it ride.

Alison Hickson
Alison Hickson
6 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

K destroys the bladder eventually

Last edited 6 months ago by Alison Hickson
Liakoura
Liakoura
6 months ago

The late great Arthur Koestler once was ‘persuaded’ to try LSD and was so convinced that he had discovered the secret of the universe, but couldn’t remember what it was. He tried again and discovered that the secret was something about a banana.
You’ll need to read his books and articles to discover what is was about the banana that was so world shattering, as I can’t remember.

David Morley
David Morley
6 months ago
Reply to  Liakoura

Similar story about Allen Ginsburg. Suddenly, while on LSD, the meaning of everything became completely clear to him. He had the presence of mind to write it on a piece of paper and put it in his pocket. He awoke the next morning in some excitement – only to find that he had written on the paper “I think there’s a funny smell in this room”.

David Morley
David Morley
7 months ago

this is K’s purpose — to kill the self. 

A bit like Buddhism then?

Sorry to be facetious – but obviously the effect is more positive than it comes across in this piece, otherwise people wouldn’t take it.

Also interesting to see boomer drugs like LSD now being portrayed in a positive light – and evidently all that self exploration led to Thatcher, Reagan, mass consumerism and status obsession – nice.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
7 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

Presumably you are happy it also led to Pride month, black history month, legalisation of gay marriage, hate speech laws, DEI commissars of right think, and so on and so on.

Last edited 7 months ago by Martin Bollis
David Morley
David Morley
7 months ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

How much did you take?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
7 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

Not enough clearly

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
7 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

It’s almost as if the boomers have some strange psychological compulsion to distinguish between the drugs they took and the drugs the younger generation is taking, making the former appear more acceptable and benign and the latter more sinister and destructive. How strange.
Of course their drugs were better because they had to get up at 3 AM in the pitch dark and walk fifteen miles in the snow, uphill both ways, carrying fifty pounds of hay to feed the goats, chased by stray dogs… and zombies… or wait maybe that was just the LSD.

John Huddart
John Huddart
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Surely the drug of choice for most of us ‘boomers’ was and is beautiful beer?

Last edited 6 months ago by John Huddart
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
6 months ago
Reply to  John Huddart

You’ve never seen Quadrophenia? Plenty of pills in that

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
6 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

A bit like Buddhism then?

Not even a bit. The Buddha himself called this view ucchedavada or “annihilationism”, and declared it heretical.

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
6 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

No, the effect really isn’t positive.
At first it seems like an upper as per speed or cocaine, but it quite quickly becomes clear that the quickening effect is caused by your internal clock slowing down as the anesthetic takes hold.
I can honestly say that I have no idea why people use that stuff, other than as a novelty, one-off experience, unless it’s because it’s so cheap.
Also, I think your timeline is a bit off – I am 50, so came of age when Thatcher & Reagan were being lampooned on Spitting Image. The drug of my youth was MDMA (ecstasy).
I believe LSD had it’s heyday 20-30 years prior to that, and I side with Aldous Huxley, in believing that everyone should try it at least once.

Last edited 6 months ago by Philip Stott
Cynthia W.
Cynthia W.
6 months ago

“Users enter a form of drug-induced coma or sub-anaesthetic state, where the body struggles to move and the mind separates — the ultimate disconnection from the body and the physical world it inhabits.”
Try sleep. 

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
6 months ago

Ok. But physiologically, how does the drug cause a bladder to “shrink to the size of a marble”?

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
6 months ago
Reply to  Daniel Lee

Ageing will do that for most blokes, surely….

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
6 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

As the prostate expands to the size of a large apple.

Al Hicks
Al Hicks
6 months ago
Reply to  Daniel Lee

According to a medical website: In Ketamine Bladder, the walls of the bladder become irritated and inflamed. Healthcare professionals refer to this inflammation as cystitis. It is not entirely clear why Ketamine Bladder develops. Experts believe that bladder damage occurs due to the breakdown products of Ketamine.
When someone takes Ketamine, the body breaks it down into metabolites. These metabolites leave the body via the bladder. As they come into contact with the bladder wall, they cause inflammation.
If left untreated, Ketamine bladder can have serious consequences. The inflamed bladder tissue can eventually become scarred. This is called fibrosis. Once scarred, a damaged bladder cannot be fully treated without major surgery.

Liakoura
Liakoura
6 months ago

“Eye on fiction: Heavenly and hellish – writers on hallucinogens”
https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/eye-fiction-heavenly-and-hellish-writers-hallucinogens