If you follow the local news, you might be forgiven for thinking that ketamine is an upcoming scource about to send people to Boston’s rehabs and emergency rooms. You may also have heard about its newly discovered applications, particularly for controlling pain and depression. Here we’ll explore what ketamine is and whether or not we should be wary about the hype surrounding it.
Ketamine or “Special K” as it’s known among illicit drug users, is neither a new drug nor something we should necessarily panic about. It was first developed at the Parke Davis Laboratories in 1962 by Calvin Stevens, an American organic chemist who was working at the facility as a consultant.
Then known as CI-581, the substance was developed as part of efforts to find better anesthetics, specifically to replace phencyclidine (PCP; street name “Angel Dust”), which was known to have an extremely high potential for abuse.
Ketamine was patented in Belgium in 1963 and was widely used outside of America shortly after. It finally became FDA-approved as a sedative and anesthetic in 1970 and was notably used on American troops, many of whom were combat veterans of the then-ongoing Vietnam War. From this application, it was found that ketamine also had beneficial effects on depression, a common condition among those involved in the conflict.
It was also from this use that its hallucinogenic and euphoric qualities became better known to the public. It soon saw more widespread illicit use than PCP, the then widely-abused drug it was supposed to replace. As with benzodiazepines, another class of sedative drugs developed and marketed around the same period, ketamine was also widely used as a “date rape drug”.
While authorities understood full well ketamine’s addiction and abuse potential, it was not until 1999 that it was classified by the DEA as a Schedule III non-narcotic controlled substance. This led to a much-reduced number of prescriptions for the drug throughout the early 2000s.
The legal status of ketamine saw a restriction in its wider medical use as well as its access by the general public. However, in the 2010s, there was a revival in interest in the substance, particularly as a potent antidepressant in low doses. It was also found to be comparatively safer than opioids in low doses for some pain control applications.
In 2019, there was further interest generated in ketamine when a research team in Florida State University found that it had potential for treating alcohol use disorder, and possibly other substance use disorders. Researchers working on rats discovered that ketamine reduced alcohol use by almost 80 percent, with positive effects lasting weeks after treatment.
Putting the results in context, the lead researcher noted, “…three weeks is a long time in a rat’s life… If a similar thing happened in humans, one could imagine that after a short treatment with ketamine, alcoholic patients would cease alcohol intake for a couple of years”.
Another important event for ketamine in 2019 was its FDA approval for treating major depression. This was the first time in decades that a new class of drug for depression was approved. This new medication is in the form of a nasal spray and is reportedly effective at addressing “treatment-resistant depression”. The results of trials were reportedly so promising that the FDA fast-tracked the approval process.
An article from Yale Medicine titled “How New Ketamine Drug Helps with Depression.” noted the drug as a “game-changer”, as it works in a completely different way from other standby antidepressant drugs. The brain reacts to ketamine in a way that causes neuron growth, helping create new connections that bypass the defective ones associated with major depression.
While further study is needed, this may also be the reason why ketamine may also have potential for alcohol use disorder, as it may stimulate the creation of fresh connections that bypass the ones created by drinking.
This is exciting news, as ketamine may soon prove to be a potent weapon in treating substance use disorder. Current approaches for long-term treatment tend to lean towards therapy and allowing the brain to rebuild connections naturally, a process that could take several years. Ketamine can potentially shorten the time needed for people with substance use disorder to achieve a full recovery.
However, the abuse potential of larger doses of ketamine remains. If it were to become more widely available for medical applications, unauthorized use is likely to increase as well, a situation that’s happened with opioids, benzodiazepines, and amphetamines.
There is are legitimate reasons for the new hype around ketamine. However, while these new findings may show ketamine to be a blessing for addiction and depression treatments, there is still much reason to be wary. The addictive potential of these drugs remains. Should we see ketamine become a mainstream treatment, there is inevitably going to be an abuse problem that will follow it, if previous patterns apply.
If you’re currently experiencing problems with ketamine, please get in touch with our team at Boston Drug Treatment Centers to find rehab programs in your area.