It’s safe to say Joseph Palamar goes to a lot of raves. Since 2016, he’s attended more than 125 parties in New York City, but he’s not there to get lit—as an academic, he wants to learn what kinds of drugs people are taking. He and his research team have been doing this for years by standing outside of nightclubs and surveying people going in. Sometimes, they ask for hair samples for analysis to validate results.
Palamar’s team found that cocaine use roughly doubled over the years studied, while use of ketamine, a psychedelic anesthetic, has nearly tripled. Use of the psychedelic LSD and the sedative GHB are also on the rise, while use of MDMA, sometimes called “ecstasy” or “Molly,” has remained stable.
Palamar, an associate professor at New York University School of Medicine, recently described these results in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence. But he also discovered a concerning trend, published in a separate paper, which suggests people are increasingly taking ketamine without knowing it.
During nine months in 2019, his team interviewed nearly 800 people. “Roughly 15 percent of the people we surveyed reported ketamine use in the past year,” Palamar said. “But the number that tested positive in hair samples [141 people], was about triple that.”
Those who tested positive for MDMA were more likely to test positive for ketamine after not reporting use.
While many people seek ketamine for its tranquilizing, dissociative high, it can be uncomfortable or unsafe if someone isn’t expecting that experience or accidentally takes too much. It can also be dangerous to mix with other drugs like cocaine or alcohol.
Those who tested positive for MDMA were more likely to test positive for ketamine after not reporting use. Palamar theorizes that more MDMA is being cut with ketamine or baggies are being contaminated, because it seems unlikely that his survey responders would lie about taking ketamine when many of them openly reported other drug use.
“I don’t see why people would report use of ecstasy and cocaine, maybe even meth, and then deny ketamine use,” Palamar said. “If anything, you’d lie about the meth use or something else. People need to be aware that the drugs they think they’re using might in fact be different drugs.”
Palamar also speculates that intentional ketamine use could be rising due to positive media coverage of the drug—regarding, for example, its uses to treat depression or chronic pain. Social media may also play a role; Sky News has reported, in sensationalized fashion, that videos of ketamine use are going viral on the video-sharing platform TikTok.
“It’s hard to tease out why drugs become more or less popular over time, but the availability of ketamine has noticeably increased,” said Mitchell Gomez, executive director of DanceSafe, a nonprofit drug education association. Since 1999, the group has provided free drug checking services at EDM concerts or festivals across the US, with volunteers using forensic technology to measure the composition and purity of drugs. Pill testing could tell you if your MDMA was cut with ketamine, for example.
You don’t have to take your drug to a venue to find out what’s in it. You can also order testing kits online or anonymously mail a sample to websites like EcstasyData.org, for example, which use lab-grade equipment to scrutinize every speck of drug dust they receive.
While Palamar’s two studies focus primarily on New York, their data on increases in certain drug use seem to reflect what DanceSafe is seeing nationally, according to Gomez.
“Now real ketamine seems to be relatively abundant.”
“There’s been a noticeable increase in LSD, ketamine and GHB [use] throughout the country,” Gomez said, noting that ketamine may previously have been less available. “A few years ago, virtually all of the supposed ‘ketamine’ in the US was actually a research chemical (most commonly MXE and deschloroketamine), but now those research chemicals have vanished and real ketamine seems to be relatively abundant.”
Gomez’s observations don’t match Palamar’s finding that people are increasingly using ketamine without knowing it, however. He said that he’s only come across a “tiny handful of cases” where MDMA was sold contaminated with ketamine, mostly in trace amounts. “I suspect these ‘trace’ samples are from just sharing baggies,” Gomez said.
It could be that only New York is seeing a rise in unintended ketamine use due to a local supply issue, but more research would be needed to determine that.
One frequent NYC clubber, who asked to remain anonymous, reported that he has witnessed a lot more intentional LSD, cocaine and ketamine use while clubbing, raving and attending festivals in recent years. “People use ketamine in a variety of ways,” he said. “Most of the time people just take key bumps during the event to feel that high of being drunk without actually being drunk. This means people appear to be intoxicated and disoriented and swaying back and forth, responding to music utilizing almost trance-like movements. Some other things I have seen are people sneaking in [ketamine] through Vicks snorting inhalers.”
There isn’t all that much data to demonstrate a large-scale national rise in ketamine use, however. According to results from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, lifetime ketamine use among US adults was an estimated 3,602,000 individuals in 2018, compared with 3,417,000 in 2017—an increase, but hardly a surge. Reported use among people aged 18-25 actually fell over that year.
Palamar’s research does, however, suggest that ketamine use should be the focus of more research and harm reduction education efforts.
“Drug checking is the best harm reduction method … You need to know what you’re taking.”
There is some good news, too: According to Palamar’s research, New York clubbers are using unknown powders a little less often than before. It’s impossible to safely dose crushed-up drugs if you don’t know what they are to begin with.
“Drug checking is the best harm reduction method … You need to know what you’re taking,” Palamar emphasized. “It probably helps if you know the person you’re getting it from, but I’m not really sure, cuz I think a lot of people who sell don’t even know what the hell they’re selling.”
Gomez agreed. “Misrepresentation and adulteration are just rampant in black markets. Although nothing short of full legalization and regulation of all drugs can end misrepresentation, drug checking can certainly help.”