Drawn by the lights of a distant toll booth, a young man walked along the white lines of the M50 motorway, locked in a ketamine trance.
He was high on a drug which more than one third of 18–24-year-old males in Ireland have admitted to using last year in an EU-wide survey on drug use. The young man escaped death or devastating injury when he was rescued by gardaí.
Ketamine is becoming one of Ireland’s most-used drugs with almost one quarter of Irish drug users reporting that they have taken it, according to the new European Web Survey on Drugs (EWSD).
It is the first time Ireland took part in the research across 30 countries which aims to better understand drug use in the last year, particularly among occasional users and those who use drugs in nightlife settings.
While 24% of respondents in Ireland reported using ketamine in the last year, just 13% of respondents across other European countries reported using it over the same period.
Ketamine is a powerful anaesthetic, commonly thought of as a horse tranquilliser, which has hallucinogenic properties.
First synthesized in the early 1960s for use as an anesthetic and analgesic, it was adopted for recreational use in clubs, festivals and parties.
Also known as ‘K’, ‘Special K’ and ‘Vitamin K’ it has become such a common party drug that it recently sparked a new fashion trend dubbed ‘Ketamine Chic’.
The new research suggests that its use is highest among younger age cohorts.
One-third (34%) of 18–24-year-olds in Ireland reported ketamine use last year, compared to 20% of 25–34-year-olds, 9% of 35–44-year-olds, and 5% of those aged 45 years and over.
For 18-24 year-olds, ketamine was the fourth most used drug (34%), while for all other age groups (25-34; 35-44; 45+), magic mushrooms were the fourth most common.
While those aged 24-34 reported ketamine as their fifth most used drug at 20%, ketamine was not in the top five most used drugs for older age groups.
Commenting on the findings, Dr Eamon Keenan, National Clinical Lead for Addiction Services at the HSE said: “The survey has been a useful tool to capture emerging drug trends such as the current popularity of ketamine.
“These findings support what we are witnessing across festivals this summer, with ketamine appearing as the substance of choice, often used as part of a polysubstance pattern with stimulant drugs MDMA and cocaine.”
Senior Addiction Therapist at Cuan Mhuire addiction treatment centre, Michael Guerin, said ketamine is a very dangerous drug which can make users feel invincible.
One young man narrowly escaped death or serious injury when he walked along the white line in the middle of the M50 motorway, drawn by the lights of the toll booth while on the substance, he said.
“He was very luckily rescued by gardaí. He was lucky to survive. When people are under the influence of these substances they see no danger. So they can engage in acts that put their life at risk.
Ketamine is extremely, extremely dangerous. The risk of overdose and adverse events from ketamine use, particularly once-off ketamine use, are quite high.
“So it’s a very high risk drug.”
In the past year, Mr Guerin has begun to hear from service users of the prevalence and easy availability of ketamine and the date rape drug GHB in the Irish drug and party scene.
“You tend to see more recreational use of ketamine than habitual use,” he said.
“But in the past year, we are seeing some people with primary addictions to ketamine for the first time. From information clients are giving us, it is increasing in popularity in terms of recreational, party, sporadic use more so than dependents.
“People have reported to us doing the craziest things while under the influence of ketamine.”
While anecdotal evidence suggests increased ketamine use in Ireland, general population surveys to date have not captured its prevalence and there is very limited data on its use or harms, the EWSD noted.
A dedicated ketamine module was called for if the EWSD was repeated in Ireland.
The online survey was undertaken across 30 European countries between March and May 2021. It collected data among people who use drugs, from those who are experimenting or occasional users, to those who use drugs in a more intensive way.
The Health Service Executive (HSE) managed the recruitment of the survey sample and 5,762 people in Ireland responded to the survey.
The survey was undertaken when Covid-19 restrictions were in place in Ireland, including the closure of nightlife settings, which may have impacted findings.
The survey is not a general population study and so cannot be taken as representative of the broader public as a whole; rather the aim is to investigate the behaviour of a particular sub-group of the population who identify themselves as drug users.
Nicki Killeen is Project Manager for Emerging Drug Trends at the HSE National Social Inclusion Office, which was responsible for the survey recruitment. She said that anecdotal evidence suggests ketamine use has been increasing and that increase appears to be linked to nightlife trends.
“Ketamine use has re-emerged as a common drug used among nightlife and festival attendees,” she said.
What we are now noticing is shifts from the margins to the mainstream similar to other drugs used in nightlife spaces.
“Previously this would have been more of a niche drug trend and increases may be linked with the overall proliferation of nightlife in Europe.
“We know from anecdotal evidence and discussions with young people across third-level and nightlife settings that ketamine use has been increasing over the past few years.
“In 2019, the HSE in Partnership with Trinity College Dublin conducted an online survey among festival attendees and found that ketamine was among the most commonly used substa