Why the wealthy young elite are switching from cocaine to the deadlier drug ketamine, the horse tranquillisers used on injured soldiers in Vietnam
Last updated at 8:02 AM on 23rd December 2008
The grandfather clock in Max Ellis-Wood's Mayfair maisonette is chiming 8 pm. It's a gloomy Tuesday evening in early December and, as seasonal festivities kick off across the country, people pour through Max's front door. Ostensibly, they are here for a Christmas party - but there's not a mince pie or glass of mulled wine in sight.
There are two wealthy City traders in Prada suits, several open-shirted men who have been invited on the strength of their aristocratic heritage, and three wannabe 'It' girls clopping through in Jimmy Choo spikes.
In place of party food, the beautiful antique table in the dining room is covered in lines of fine white powder. Within an hour, all the guests have sauntered over, champagne glass in hand, snorted an inch-long line, then slunk off to recline on a plush sofa.
They need to sit down because the substance will soon affect their balance, leaving them wobbly, incoherent and, at times, near collapse. For the powder they are consuming isn't the chatter-inducing cocaine often expected of such circles, it is the new drug of choice among high society - ketamine, a horse tranquilliser.
Previously the sole preserve of hardcore clubbers, consumption of this chemical has tripled over the past decade and this year became hugely popular with Britain's upper classes.
Its place as their drug du jour is as unlikely as it is incomprehensible, for ketamine's anaesthetising effect is the very antithesis of the casual chic these people work so hard to cultivate.
While mild doses invoke euphoria and boost energy, greater amounts bring on an altered reality - hallucinations and delusions. Sometimes users fall into a 'K-hole' - a semi-conscious state in which they are completely cut off from the external world, virtually paralysed and unable to speak.
Yet, incredibly, these disturbing results are precisely what users want, as I discover when I go undercover to investigate the ketamine phenomenon at a series of social events across the country.
My first experience of seeing the drug's effects for myself comes at the party in Mayfair. One of the guests is Sienna, a 32-year-old hedge fund manager from Surrey, who was introduced to ketamine three months ago.
'I'd been doing cocaine for years and needed a new buzz,' she tells me unashamedly, 'so I didn't need much persuasion to try K.
'It was love at first snort. It's great fun and a completely different high to anything else. It's like an out-of-body experience that sends you a little bit crazy. Now I always keep a spare bag at home with a bottle of Rioja.'
She laughs dismissively when I mention the shaming prospect of a criminal record. Two years ago, in recognition of its growing use as a recreational drug, ketamine was categorised as a Class C drug, so a conviction for possession carries a two-year prison sentence and an unlimited fine.
Usually snorted as powder, ketamine costs £20 per gram - half the price of cocaine. But money doesn't matter to the people at this party. The host, Max, 30, is a wealthy entrepreneur.
He first tried the drug by accident, thinking it was cocaine, and took too much. He recalls very little of what happened afterwards, but woke naked on his friend's bathroom floor.
Surprisingly, the episode didn't scare him off. Though he's now careful to take small doses, he considers it a party staple.
'People do really weird things that you couldn't even imagine normally,' he says. 'Often, everyone gets involved in the same hallucination. Once, we suddenly all thought we were in the sea and started swimming.
Army medics used it for battlefield surgery in Vietnam
'Ket nights are always memorable. And it's better than other drugs because you can sleep afterwards and there's no come-down.'
Sitting in the drawing room with two of his friends - ironically, both doctors - their conversation soon turns to debating their own existence, in risibly clichéd terms.
'We're so insignificant,' says Max. 'In this huge world, I feel like nothing.'
His friend agrees: 'Yes, we're so small here. But then I feel like I'm not even really on Earth - like my body is worthless anyway.'
Such ramblings are typical of those who take ketamine, which was developed by American chemists in 1962 as a 'dissociative anaesthetic'. The hallucinogenic effect makes patients consider their mind separate from the body, so that urgent surgery - such as amputations - can be performed without general anaesthetic. Army medics used it for battlefield surgery in Vietnam.
Bella hides her drugs inside her Chloe handbag: The young wealthy have adopted the drug from hard-core clubbers
Commonly used on horses, the drug is now given to humans only by ambulance crews in extreme circumstances, or in hospital when morphine proves ineffective.
Because the drug is prescribed by medical practitioners, many users mistakenly consider it completely safe. In fact, ketamine is rarely used for humans precisely because of its serious side-effects. Terrifyingly, the most common is psychosis.
(An American ketamine research scientist named John Lilly was driven insane by his obsessive consumption of the drug. He developed paranoid fantasies that a form of artificial intelligence was out to destroy humanity, and was confined to a psychiatric ward, where he died in 2001.)
While the psychological dissociation seems temporary, the effects of such an intense experience last long after the drug wears off. There are also physical effects: heavy users report urinating blood and extreme stomach cramps, while prolonged use can lead to irreversible kidney and bladder damage.
'Short-term, it can drastically lower blood pressure, slow down or speed up the heart, increase pressure on the brain and bring on vision problems,' says Dr Simon Kelly, consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital near Southampton.
'There is, too, the potential for overdose, which could cause a stroke or heart attack. Long-term, the effects are like LSD. It leaves users with nasty hallucinations, nightmares, severe anxiety and insomnia.'
Use is soaring among the young and well-heeled
They're hardly personality traits that would go down well over dinner at The Ivy. Yet ketamine's use among the young and well-heeled is soaring. At the party in Mayfair, Max Ellis-Wood tells me how, only days before, he attended a party at a Wiltshire mansion thrown by two young men whose parents are friends of the royals.
The boys' reputation for throwing the best bashes was apparently sealed when they cooked up fresh ketamine (from its original liquid form) in their kitchen microwave.
'We were snorting it straight off the marble sideboard,' says Max. 'Their parents were abroad and it really kicked off. Lots of people were dancing, as K can be quite energising in small amounts.
'Of course, some people overdid it and just glazed over. I found someone lying on the dining-room table staring at the chandelier - he must have been there for hours.'
Meanwhile, Sienna tells a story of when she was at a party at a villa in Greece this summer and the prince of a European royal family arrived with two bottles of liquid ketamine.
'I couldn't believe my eyes,' she says. 'He had it in mouthwash bottles, and dyed green to look believable, so it came out of the microwave brightly coloured. We were up for two nights and got through the whole lot - about 40 grams between 30 of us. I certainly never expected to see a prince in that state.'
Original use: Ketamine was originally intended to be used on injured soldiers in Vietnam
Ketamine isn't only favoured for social events: many people consider it the perfect 'staying in' drug.
Next, I visited Joanna, a 28-year-old model and well-known girl-about-town who is having a quiet night in with her two best friends - plus a gram of ketamine - at her Notting Hill apartment.
'I like that it changes your senses,' says Jo's friend Bella, a 31-year-old fashion PR executive from Gloucestershire. 'It distorts everything: objects change size. Sometimes I feel like I'm in miniature and everyone else is a giant. The world is a completely different place - that's what I love so much.
'We first tried it at a Balearic villa party in June. Everyone was doing it there. Some people mix it with cocaine to make "Calvin Klein" (because of the initials CK). But really coke's fallen out of favour; it's boring. Why bother with it when ket's such fun?
'On K, people start doing really mad things. One girl thought she had velcro eyebrows and spent hours trying to stick things to them. It was hilarious.'
Lying on a rug by the open fire in Jo's flat, Bella pulls a blue suede pouch from her Chloe handbag. It rolls out to reveal a dinky silver tool kit containing a mirror, ornate blade, silver tube and tiny silver spoon.
Bella lies back on the rug and stays silent
Though to most people drugs are dirty - disreputable dealers cut powders with products as disturbing as washing powder and rat poison - for Joanna and friends this is an apparently sanitised activity.
After carefully spooning the ketamine onto the mirror from a tiny test-tube-like jar, Bella chops it with the blade then forms it into three long slivers. The girls smile at each other then swiftly each snort a line of powder.
Minutes later, their picture-perfect features are marred by the drugs' effects. However attractive ketamine appears to its users, the effects are ugly to observe.
'Those lines might have been a bit hefty,' laughs Jo. Bella giggles back.
'They were huge!' yells Rachel, 30. 'But I'm happy with that - let's go tripping for a while.'
Moments later, their excited chatter descends into incomprehensible, meaningless gibberish. They struggle to utter words which, when spoken, appear to mean as little to them as to everyone else.
Nor is it just their speech that has slowed: their actions are similarly stunted. It looks as if they have been shut down, mentally and physically, though their eyes are wide open.
After stuttering momentarily, Bella lies back on the rug and stays silent. Joanna stands up and looks around the room as if she has never seen it before, her face flicking through a series of emotions - shock, joy, confusion, anger. It's terrifying to watch.
Taken in larger doses, the drug is dangerously debilitating. New recruits need very little to end up in a 'K-hole', experiencing 'trips' similar to those caused by taking LSD. It is called a 'hole' because the real world seems so far away.
While people are so blind to their surroundings, they become dangerously vulnerable. This summer, a 24-year- old woman drowned in the bath after taking ketamine, and stories of fatal car crashes because of drugged-up drivers are far from rare.
When people do hurt themselves after taking ketamine, they don't notice because the anaesthetic elements mean they feel no pain.
Another real and increasingly common risk is addiction. There is a widely held but misplaced belief by users that ketamine is not addictive - a myth Dr Simon Kelly is keen to dispel, having seen the life-destroying-effects on his patients at The Priory. 'People mistakenly think they can't get hooked, but repeated use causes dependency,' he says.
Taking the drug causes an increase in dopamine, the brain's feelgood chemical, because it is enjoyed. After repeated use, people find they get a kick only when the drug is taken - and that means dependency.
'Plus, tolerance to the drug builds quickly, so users have to take larger amounts to achieve the hit that they want.
'It is certainly addictive. People end up very isolated, as they dedicate all their time to finding it and doing it. Heavy users can lose their job and relationships, and get into huge debt as they need more and more.'
Being addicted to a horse tranquiliser is hardly glamorous
The next stage of my investigation into the drug proves just how negative these side-effects can be. I meet Claire, 27, a fashion writer from London. She hasn't touched it since repeated use last year left her with paranoia and delusions - long after the drug had left her body.
'It was awful,' says Claire. 'I'd swing between thinking I was some sort of Messiah, to being suicidal. It took me a while to realise what was wrong. I couldn't believe that a tranquilliser could cause such thoughts.'
It was only when she tried to stop taking the drug that she realised she was hooked. 'It was awful. Any addiction would be embarrassing, but this is particularly bad. Being addicted to a horse tranquilliser is hardly glamorous, is it?
'I eventually weaned myself off, but it took a long time because I liked the drug so much. It's only now, after a year of complete abstinence, that I'm starting to feel stable again. It was absolutely petrifying feeling like that, and I'll never touch any drug again.'
Despite her warnings, her friends continue to take ketamine. Some even take it at work, using a 'bullet' - a small glass capsule which can be sniffed to inhale a tiny amount of the powder. The drug equivalent to a shot of spirit.
'A lot of my friends used ketamine to break their cocaine addiction, but effectively just swapped powders,' says Claire. 'In small enough doses, nobody notices the change and it makes the day fly by. I know some guys who snort it when they get home from work to unwind, instead of drinking a beer.'
Though I've seen the disturbing and unedifying results of taking this drug for myself, it's difficult to comprehend the drug's appeal. And yet, to users, it is clearly such a temptation that even those with the most status to lose aren't deterred by the potential humiliation of a criminal record, nor by the drug's dangerous side-effects.
Indeed, ketamine's popularity appears to be increasing as users explore new places to exploit the drug, and new recruits follow the example of their supposedly fashionable friends.
• Some names have been changed.