Ketamine is a general anesthetic with powerful dissociative and psychedelic effects. Although more widely used on animals since its development in the 1960s, ketamine has long been used on humans as well—especially in patients with respiratory or circulatory problems. More recently, the drug has been hailed as a breakthrough therapy for depression with thousands of ketamine clinics opening all over the world.
Recreationally, ketamine is either insufflated (snorted) or injected. The drug is most famously associated with the ‘K-hole’ effect, a depersonalized state that many find therapeutic.
Despite its benefits, ketamine remains a controlled substance in the United States and many other countries.
Ketamine was developed in 1962 as an anesthetic to replace PCP (phencyclidine). It was first synthesized by Calvin Stevens of Parke-Davis, Michigan—once the largest pharmaceutical company in the U.S. Initially known as CI-581, the drug was tested on human prisoners in 1964 and the term “dissociative anesthetic” was coined to describe its effects.
Recreational use began around 1965 and became internationally prevalent by the mid-1970s. During this period, psychedelic researchers such as John C. Lilly, Marcia Moore, Stanislav Grof, and D. M. Turner were exploring ketamine’s psychotherapeutic potential. It was also being used by Vietnam veterans with PTSD, having been the field anesthetic of choice during the war. Lilly referred to the drug as “Vitamin K” and once took it for 100 days straight; Grof found it useful and integrative for therapy with LSD.
In the 1980s, ketamine’s popularity shifted to the rave culture of Ibiza and Goa. It was often encountered as a cheaper alternative to another up-and-coming “club drug,” MDMA.
In 1981, the DEA filed a notice of intention to place ketamine in Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act,, but evidence of actual abuse was too scarce to support the designation. In 1995, the drug was added to the agency’s “emerging drugs list” and finally labeled Schedule III in 1999, making it illegal to possess without a prescription. As a result, it was commonly stolen from hospitals or smuggled from overseas.
Although it’s a controlled substance in most of the Western world, ketamine is widely used both in medicinal and recreational purposes.