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Substance misuse

Ketamine: Understanding the risks

A group of young adults sit together on a bed in a cosy bedroom. One holds a glass in their hands. Overlaid is text that reads: "Drugs Awareness Poster Hub".

Substance misuse is an issue which cuts across our organisation and we have worked with frontline staff at our Young People’s Substance Misuse service to produce downloadable resources that anyone working with young people, or who would like to know more about emerging trends, can download, print off and share.

What is Ketamine

Ketamine (ketamine hydrochloride) is a dissociative general anaesthetic. Doctors and vets use this drug because it produces pain relief and amnesia. It is considered a safer alternative to general anaesthetic for some people (e.g. older people and children) as it does not slow down a person’s breathing or heart rate.

Ketamine may commonly be called: ‘VitaminK’ (not to be mistaken for the actual vitamin found in vegetables), ‘Special K’, ‘Super K’, ‘K’, ‘Green’, ‘Donkey Dust’, ‘Ket’ or ‘Wonk’.

Ketamine produces a feeling of detachment from one’s body and the external world. It does this by reducing or blocking signals to the conscious mind from other parts of the brain, such as the senses – sight, sound, taste, touch and smell.

The short-term effects of ketamine include a sense of euphoria and wellbeing, hallucinations, a sense of floating, drowsiness, amnesia, slurred speech, nausea, vomiting and dissociation.

There is no safe level of drug use. It is important to be careful when taking any type of drug.

The Law

  • Ketamine is controlled as a Class B Drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. (It was reclassified from Class C in June 2014).
  • Penalties for possession are up to five years in prison and/or an unlimited fine.
  • Supply holds penalties of up to 14 years in prison and/or an unlimited fine.

Ten things you need to know

  1. When used as a medicine, ketamine looks like a clear liquid. When ketamine is used recreationally it can look like a grainy brown or white powder and it can also come in a tablet form.
  2. Ketamine is likely to be cut with other substances to increase the sellers profits; this can increase the risk of negative side effects and overdose. Sugars (e.g. lactose), talcum powder, paracetamol, and caffeine are just a few of the substances commonly found in the final product.
  3. A person may feel the effects of ketamine within 5-10 minutes if the drug is snorted. When ketamine is taken orally, it can take between 20 minutes to an hour to feel the full effects. It is important not to top up a dose if the substance is taking a long time to kick in as this can increase the risk of overdose. Once the drug has fully entered the body, people may experience the effects from thirty minutes up to an hour.
  4. When people use ketamine, they may enter an ‘emergent state’ which starts with feelings of being unable to move, followed by the feeling of disconnection from physical sensations and sometimes hallucinations.
  5. Some people may experience a “K-hole” which is a trip-like experience that varies from person to person. During a “K-hole” they may feel like their mind and body has separated which can be unpleasant and scary.
  6. The risk of overdose with ketamine is higher if people use other depressant drugs at the same time. Depressant drugs include alcohol, benzodiazepines, pain killers or heroin.
  7. Ketamine reduces the brain’s ability to feel pain, which can increase the risk of injury when under the influence. An injury could result in hospital admission or in severe cases could be fatal.
  8. Ketamine can increase heart rate and blood pressure, which can be dangerous for people with pre-existing problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease and people at risk of a stroke.
  9. Ketamine can cause mental health issues, such as psychotic symptoms (delusions, hallucinations, disturbing thoughts), anxiety, panic attacks and paranoia. It can also make other pre-existing mental health conditions worse.
  10. Long term use of ketamine can result in physical harm such as painful urination, stomach cramps, urinary urgency, incontinence, organ damage including bladder, brain and kidney’s. It can also have lasting effects on mental health, memory, attention and decision making.

Symptoms of ketamine overdose

Symptoms of ketamine overdose include loss of consciousness, extremely slow heart rate, low blood pressure, seizure, coma and can be fatal.

If you have used ketamine and you’re feeling unwell or notice someone else is unwell whilst using, after using or after stopping using ketamine, then seek medical attention urgently. Contact 111 for urgent medical advice or 999 in an emergency.

Symptoms of withdrawal

Ketamine withdrawal is mainly psychological in nature but you may also experience some physical symptoms. Ketamine withdrawal is not known to be fatal.

Psychological symptoms can include depression, anxiety, cravings, irritability, aggression, panic attacks, paranoia, psychosis, insomnia, self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

Physical symptoms can include fast heart rate, urinary pain, impaired vision, stomach cramps, sweating, problems with co-ordination and movement, and temporary hearing loss.

Catch22 Young People’s Substance Misuse services offer free and confidential advice and support to young people aged between 11 and 25. We can provide you with information about the risks and effects of alcohol or drugs. We are here to listen and can work with you to achieve the changes you would like to make in your life.