Special K: The New Drug of Choice
Up metal staircases and down dark corridors, we move resolutely from one crowded dance floor to the next, searching for a mysterious substance that some call "the new Ecstasy," others " psychedelic heroin." The K-hunt is on, but tonight, nobody seems to be holding. My guide tells me that the K-man cometh but when and where is the question. Just as I'm about to abandon the chase, he appears in the middle of the bustling nightclub as if in a vision, a striking figure wearing a white leather jacket with angel wings sprouting from the back. Admittedly, most drug dealers don't resemble shop-soiled versions of a character from Barbarella, but it's a fitting outfit, given that what he's selling can, if you take enough, give you a preview of your own death, put you in contact with seraph-like entities, and convince you that you've just seen God in a disco ball. Call it chemical virtual reality. Except VR technology is still years away from producing illusions as intense as those of this mind-bending drug. Its street name is Special K, so-called after the breakfast cereal. To veterinarians, however, it's better known as ketamine, an anesthetic with short-term hallucinogenic properties. And despite periodic shortages, it's all the rage in trendy Manhattan nightclubs at the moment. According to some night-crawlers, it's now surpassed Ecstasy in popularity. "It's the new high," says Project X Music Editor Afshin. "A lot of people are tired of Ecstasy because there's not enough good E around. Most of the initial users of K are stoned on E when somebody gives them a bump to prolong the high. They like that high and they come back for more." Hoping to find out what all the fuss is about, I buy a $20 bag and take a couple of "bumps." In its powdered form, it's easily mistaken for cocaine, an error that is the source of many of the horror stories surrounding this newly fashionable drug. But when you snort a line you immediately notice the difference. The raw stinging sensation on the inside of my nose--like sniffing ground glass--reminds me of crystal meth. After a few minutes, my legs turn to rubber. It's as if I'm walking across the room in a pair of platform shoes made of marshmallows. This is a consequence of the drug cutting off the flow of nerve signals from the body to the brain. Soon my whole frame is woozy. Yet, strangely, my thoughts become clearer and more vivid--the fog of normal consciousness lifts from my mind, leaving my imagination free to roam. As the drug takes hold, my perception of reality shifts dramatically. Familiar things become unfamiliar, everyday items are viewed as if for the first time. I stare at my shoes--the black lace-ups from Bergdorf's that I've worn on countless occasions--and wonder what these strange objects are doing on the end of my feet. Inhibitions break down, my ego starts to dissolve, anxieties disappear, and I experience a tremendous sense of vacant, care-free ease. Doctors term this the drug's dissociative effect--the engendering in the user of a dispassionate sense of objectivity. The club could be burning down around my ears and I wouldn't care a jot. Problems that seemed insoluble 30 minutes ago now offer up easy solutions. What happens next is highly dependent on context and dosage. As I take more of the K, time appears to slow to a crawl and my sense of spatial perspective is turned on its head. A small side room suddenly takes on the dimensions of Grand Central Station, and a short walk to the bar seems to take hours. I am now in the mellow, colorful wonder-world known as K-land (the penultimate stage of the K trip), a place it's inadvisable to go beyond in the precincts of a nightclub, though people do so all the time. My body may be completely insensate, but in K-land I can still move around, as long as I take baby steps. Going to the bathroom is a bit of a problem, though. I look down to check if I'm really peeing, since I can't feel the urine trickling out of me. I've had enough, I decide. Time to go home. The full-fledged, out-of-body K experience will have to wait for another night. And so will the delights/horrors of the K-hole. To the young ravers and club kids taking it for the first time today, Special K is a new drug. But K has been around for donkeys' years, and not just as an animal tranquilizer. The first time I came across it was in the '80s, in the depths of underground gay dance clubs like the Paradise Garage and Sound Factory. One of the more comic features of Saturday night parties at the late Sound Factory was something called the K-train--a conga line of shuffling K-heads that would circle the dance floor picking up passengers too stoned to make it to the bathroom alone. Before that, "Vitamin K," as it was called in the '70s, was a favorite drug among the psychedelic elite, its reputation summed up nicely by Jay Stevens in his classic history of psychedelics, Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream: "Ecstasy hinted at how powerful the mind could be, and once first gear was mastered, here was a second gear, and a third. Compared to MDMA, Vitamin K was tenth gear." Ketamine was first manufactured in the '60s under the brand name Ketalar by pharmaceutical giant Parke-Davis as an anesthetic for humans. Though it's often misidentified as "a short-term psychedelic," the drug it most closely resembles is PCP, another Parke-Davis anesthetic. The advantage of ketamine over other painkillers common at the time was that it could be used on the quick. " Unlike a general anesthetic," continues psychedelic researcher Sasha Shulgin, "where you have to prep a person--empty the bowels, empty the stomach and so on--there's none of that unconsciousness that leads to vomiting and loss of bodily control." Ketamine was commonly employed during battlefield surgery in Vietnam, but its human application proved to be problematic because of something called the "emergent phenomenon." "The large doses used in operations on humans caused a full-fledged psychedelic experience among some people," explains Rick Doblin, president and founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. "Patients coming out of their operations weren't prepared for the hallucinations, so they panicked." The ketamine entry in the Physicians Desk Reference contains the following cautionary note to surgeons: "Emergence reactions have occurred in approximately 12 per cent of patients and psychological manifestations vary in severity between pleasant dream-like states, vivid imagery, hallucinations, and emergence delirium." Though no longer in wide use for human operations, Ketaset, the brand name that animal K goes under, is still popular with veterinarians. A versatile drug, it's also become a helpful tool for psychotherapists seeking to break down mental barriers in their patients. In Russia, alcoholics are given ketamine to help cure their addiction. "The way ketamine is used in psychotherapy is very different from how it's used in rave clubs," explains Doblin. "What ketamine does, it's a mind-body separator. It jumps over the ego and gives patients a religious sense of eternity and timelessness. When you go beyond the ego, people have experiences that make them feel connected to basic primal energies. It's like going back to when you were a baby and you don't have words for anything and it's just sort of basic perceptions." In the '70s, after LSD was made illegal, ketamine crossed over into the recreational/experimental sphere when it was discovered by New Age types, foremost among them the neuroscientist Dr. John Lilly--the Timothy Leary of ketamine. Lilly is the man who invented the isolation tank in the '50s; he was the model for the William Hurt character in Altered States. His research on communication between dolphins and humans was the basis for another Hollywood film, Day of the Dolphin. In his autobiographical novel, The Scientist, he recounts how he was given the drug for the first time as a cure for his recurring migraine. From then on, Lilly became a daily consumer of the drug and ended up being hospitalized at least once. A pioneer in many things, he was the world's first ketamine casualty. Lilly claims that ketamine can facilitate trans-species communication. Once, at Marine World in Redwood City, this latter-day Doctor Doolittle went swimming with dolphins while under the influence of ketamine and claims he left his body and entered the gray-skinned creatures' group mind. Like many chronic users, he also declares he's made repeated contact with extraterrestrials who are said to manage something called ECCO (the Earth Coincidence Control Office). According to Lilly these angelic entities coordinate coincidence so as to push us along the evolutionary path to a higher consciousness. Another Lilly theory is that ketamine enables the brain to pick up TV and radio signals, his attempt to account for the frequent perception among K-heads of being a character in a cheesy TV sitcom. " I had got into a soap opera on TV," he told one interviewer, "and was taking part in it as if it were reality." The way K was taken in the '70s is much different from today. Back then it was injected in liquid form and utilized for meditative purposes rather than dancing around a club. Lilly, for instance, would hook himself up to an IV drip and float in his tank, increasing the intensity of his visions by shutting out distractions from the outside world. People familiar with ketamine from the '70s are always surprised to learn that K is prevalent in dance clubs today. " To me it's mind-boggling that it's showed up in raves," remarks Doblin, " because I see it as a total out-of-body, consciousness-exploration drug." When fresh-faced, blue-haired fashion punk Rusty moved to New York last September to attend art school, the extent of his hard-drug track record was a single tab of acid. But during midnight forays around the city, he soon discovered that Special K was fast becoming the drug of choice among his age group. "Eighteen-year-olds were doing K in large quantities for the first time," he says. "So I bought a $50 bottle, took it all, passed out, and went into a K-hole." Nine months later, he does K two or three times a week in significant amounts. In this period, he's revisited the ominous-sounding K-hole on countless occasions. Rusty is sitting in the vestibule of a well-known Manhattan hot spot, where scoring K can be easier than getting a drink. He's 20, and he doesn't want his last name printed lest his parents find out about his K habit. Sitting next to him is 22-year-old Betty Krocker, a self-confessed "hardcore K-whore" whose hands are adorned with poison rings in which she stores powdered ketamine. To many novices, the K-hole is a frightening and disorientating place, a vortex of delusional horrors where walls recede, the floor is whipped away from under your feet, and you lose all sense of individual personality. "Who am I?" "What am I?" and "Where am I?" are the three questions you commonly hear from people who have entered the K-hole for the first time. Shawn Monihan, a 25-year-old sales manager who lives in New Jersey, describes a K-hole he fell into at a recent Sound Factory party at Roseland. "I took so much K I couldn't figure out if I was human anymore," he says. "I had no meaning. I lost total contact with reality. I'd see a flashing light and I thought I was that light. Then I thought I was a beat in the music." To adventurous people like Rusty and Betty, however, the K-hole is a doorway to a magical kingdom. "I find the K-hole enjoyable," he says matter-of-factly. "It's really neat as long as I don't have to walk around. You go on a little adventure in your mind. I close my eyes and imagine crawling through all sorts of tunnels--whether they be computer-electrical with lights flashing everywhere or dark sewer tunnels with pipes everywhere." According to Betty Krocker, you know you're about to enter a K-hole when you hear a mechanical buzzing in your ears, a sound familiar to hardcore K-heads. "It's like somebody has turned on a giant machine," she says. "Sometimes the buzzing is so loud it sounds like an alien spaceship is hovering over your head." You don't have to be fully immersed in a K-hole to undergo intense hallucinations. At the edge of the K-hole, people frequently report feeling as if they've been transformed into robots or cyborgs. Movements become mechanical. Your feet seem motorized. Your body appears to be devolving down into individual atoms. And you start to speak in a machinelike monotone: "Me thinks me need to go sit down." Some experiences on the cusp of the K-hole are unique to the individual. Betty Krocker, for instance, tells of one night at Sound Factory when she turned into a wooden ABC block: "I was a big square and when I looked down, my front was painted yellow with a giant A, my side was painted blue with a B, and my other side was painted red with a C." Up to this point, you're still able to move and maintain a tentative contact with your surroundings. But once in the K-hole proper the real world vanishes and all motor functions cease, to the extent that your companions may be convinced that you've died and gone to K-heaven. You yourself will have lost complete track of your body, imagining you're a liquid flowing through a tunnel or an electrical impulse careening around a computer circuit board or a ghost floating through solid walls. The K-hole is different for everybody, but common themes crop up again and again in the dozen or more interviews I did with hardcore K customers. The young people taking K today have never heard of John Lilly, and they have no knowledge of the psychedelic cosmonauts of the New Age movement. But what they describe is remarkably similar. Of the six categories of mental effects produced by ketamine that Peter Stafford identifies in his Psychedelics Encyclopedia, five of them turned up frequently and unprompted in conversations with today's younger consumers. Only the "Tantra-like enhancement of sexual activity" is missing from the accounts of contemporary K-heads. The others--contact with aliens, entry into computer networks, access to alternative realities, personal and creative problem solving, and out-of-body-near-death states--are all there. "The most intense K experience I've ever had was at a friend's house," says one young woman, a fashion model for a famous designer. "I immediately went into a K-hole and fell on the floor where I found myself looking at a table leg, which turned into the head of an alien that started talking to me." She also describes brushes with mortality: "At the end of every K-trip I feel like I'm dying, but it's not scary. It's like I'm dying, but I accept it as a natural thing." "K definitely gives you a taste of death," agrees Rusty. "That's part of the fun. I had one experience where I sat next to myself. It was only for a few seconds. Afterwards, I ran around the club raving about how I'd just had an out-of-body experience." Others describe travel to distant lands, becoming a character in a '50s Technicolor movie, and "meeting God in a garden of geometrical shapes." Dressed in snakeskin pants and a Marilyn Manson T-shirt that reads "I Am The God of Fuck," James Tea tells me about a favorite ritual of his: "I like to put on ambient-style music like the Edward Scissorhands soundtrack, lie down on my bed, and get in a real deep K-hole. You feel like you literally become part of the music. It's like the music becomes a story and you become a character in the story." Increasingly, people are discovering that a better context to take large amounts of K isn't the dance floor but at home. Because nightclubbers prefer to snort the drug rather than inject it, it has to be prepared beforehand. Cooking up a batch of Special K is as simple as baking apple pie, however. You begin with a box of six 10-milliliter bottles of Ketaset, the animal K manufactured by Fort Dodge Laboratories that comes with the label "for use in cats and nonhuman primates." You pour the contents into a glass tray, making sure to remove the serial numbers from the empty bottles before throwing them in the trash. That way, if anyone finds the empties, they can't be traced back to the source. Then you place the tray in an oven, and bake until the liquid turns into a crust. For the best results, you cook it at a low temperature for a long time--say 200 degrees, which takes about an hour. If you cook it at 475 degrees it takes only 20 minutes, but the power of the drug is greatly reduced. For dedicated K gourmands, Betty Krocker recommends covering the K with a lid and then, immediately after cooking, placing the covered tray into a freezer. That way none of the vapors escape into the oven. "It may look easy, but there's a real art to cooking with K," she says. Another method of preparing K is to dry it out on an open shelf. But few K-heads have the patience to wait the 24 to 72 hours it takes for this process to work. "If cooked right," explains Rusty, "it gives you very varied visuals, colors fade together so that the room looks totally pink or totally brown. If it's cooked wrong, it makes you fall asleep." Next you grind the crust into a powder. One bottle of liquid K, which sells on the black market for about $75, normally gives you the equivalent of two or three vials of powder, which go for $50 a pop in the clubs. Unlike other drugs, Special K is usually sold uncut. Some dealers have tried to mix the K with vanilla or pineapple extract, so that when you get the drips it tastes better. But that impairs the potency. The most difficult part of the process is the initial step of finding the basic ingredient. Since there are no illegal laboratories manufacturing ketamine, the bottles are diverted from legitimate medical supplies. A crooked contact in a veterinarian's office or a drug company is essential for any K dealer. Or like Betty Krocker, you can lure the local vet around to your apartment using the pretense of a sick pet, and then steal his supplies when he's not looking. Businesswise, K is still a cottage industry. There's not that much money to be made from selling it--mainly, one suspects, because the purveyors of the drug are their own best customers. Most K dealers also sell coke and E to supplement their income. Unlike in the '70s, the people taking K today tend to mix it with other drugs. Cocaine, for instance, is a common club remedy for those trying to get out of a K-hole. The combination of coke and K is known as a Calvin Klein special; the combination of E and Special K is known as Product 19. One well-known Downtown drag queen laces the K she sells with acid and Strawberry Quik. Betty Krocker suggests that for that extra-trippy effect you try K with whippets. "One time I did that and I saw a man walking across a club turn into a papier-mache figure with no eyes," she says. "The detail was incredible. I could read the newsprint." Inevitably, demand outstrips supply. K-droughts are common. When it's available, however, it can prove to be an expensive habit, because tolerance builds up so quickly. "It starts off with a few bumps," says Project X's Afshin, "and before long people are doing two or three bottles a night." Local drug dealers report that customers like K because it's a short-term half-hour high. "It's easier to handle than an acid trip, which takes hours," says one drug dealer. "When it's time to go home, it's over. And it doesn't give you a hangover in the morning." K's not physically addictive, but that doesn't mean it's completely safe. In itself, the separation between mind and body isn't necessarily harmful, and can be very therapeutic. But witness the story of the late Sheraton Hotel heiress Marcia Moore, who, with Howard Alltounian, wrote the 1978 tome Journeys Into the Bright World, which praised ketamine's handiness as a tool for psychic exploration, as well as characterizing it as a kind of divine instructor that helped the couple resolve personal problems in their day-to-day lives. One particularly cold night in Seattle, Moore wandered outside while on K, oblivious to the danger of exposure. Two years later, her skull was discovered in a nearby swamp. Chronic ketamine users report some short-term memory loss. And it's rumored to temporarily impair vision if done in massive amounts. But generally, it's relatively safe, just as long as you don't decide to go swimming in the ocean, drive a car, or stroll out in the middle of a snowstorm while under the influence. "It's unlikely that ketamine will kill you," says Jerry Beck, principal investigator of the Berkeley-based Institute for Scientific Analysis, "because the doses people do in clubs is far smaller than the doses administered in operations, which is considered quite safe." But the mental dependency that comes with frequent use is another question. The first casualties of the new generation of K-heads are beginning to emerge. "There are now people who can't go out without it," claims James Tea. "They do it so much that they can't communicate with others. It turns them into antisocial zombies." "This is a very seductive drug for some people," agrees Ann Shulgin, the other half of the Shulgin husband-and-wife drug research team. "It gets them into another reality space, and they tend to rationalize the taking of it continuously and refuse to admit that they're hooked. It's not physically addictive, but it can certainly be psychologically addictive. It's one of the few psychedelics I've heard of that can be dangerous for this reason." Yet, considering that ketamine is chemically similar to PCP, its reputation is relatively benign and definitely nonviolent. It's unlikely to become a devil drug as Angel Dust did. There are no reports of it taking 10 cops to subdue a single K-head, most of whom have trouble standing up, let alone fighting. Partially, that's due to the chic social context in which K circulates. And the type of person attracted to K is likely to remain limited, because Ketamine simply isn't that rewarding for a lot of folks; unlike cocaine, for instance, it doesn't make you feel sexy, euphoric, or more in control. Exactly the opposite. And a drug that annihilates the ego is not pleasant for most people. Nor has the rest of the country been gripped by any comparable K-fever. Ketamine could once be found in L.A.'s gay clubs, but the Californian rave scene largely shuns the drug. Why K has taken off in such a big way in Manhattan clubs is a bit of a mystery. Maybe it's because of what Rusty rather poetically calls ketamine's "gift of blankness." "When you're on K, you don't know and you don't care what's going on around you," he says. "If you can get away for however long K lasts, that's a great thing for some New Yorkers because there's so much stress in everyday life in this city." Betty Krocker agrees that there's something about New York that adds an extra dimension to the K-trip, which makes sense given that many of the researchers I talked to emphasized that the effect of ketamine varies greatly depending on the context in which you take it. "I've noticed that when I take K outside of New York, I don't have as trippy an experience," she says. "When I take K in Florida, I don't get the same visions, I just pass out. It's as if the vibe of New York intensifies the hallucinations." Accounting for its popularity in New York, Peter Gorman of High Times has another theory, however: "It was invented as an animal anesthetic," he jokes. "And here in New York we're all a bunch of dogs. So it fits right in."