Is ketamine a psychedelic? Breaking down the debate
As more people seek alternative ways to cope with mental health conditions, ketamine is one drug growing in popularity. The compound may help ease treatment-resistant depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other ailments. But is ketamine a psychedelic?
This question has sparked a debate that’s been growing within psychedelic circles. People describe the ketamine experience as consciousness-expanding, much like classical psychedelics such as psilocybin mushrooms or LSD. However, the way the drug works is not inherently the same as these other compounds.
Trying to determine the answer to “Is ketamine a psychedelic?” is more complicated than a simple yes or no. However, the drug may help open the door to the acceptance and study of other psychoactive substances—a point that people should not ignore.
What is ketamine?
Ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic first developed as a way to reduce or prevent pain. The drug debuted in the 1960s and is used for both sedation and anesthesia in humans and animals. It is mainly administered via IV, in a pill, or via a spray.
Recreational use of ketamine became popular in the 1990s, particularly in the club scene. As a “club drug,” ketamine produces an out-of-body experience that’s euphoric and comforting. Depending on the dose (and what it’s combined with), it may even be energetic instead of relaxing. Since the drug is primarily sedative in nature, it can become weaponized by predatory individuals, much like GHB (the so-called “date rape” drug).
By the millennium, ketamine started to gain traction as a mental health treatment. Researchers at Yale published a study showing the potential of small doses of ketamine for depression. “Low-dose ketamine is associated with robust decreases in depressive symptoms,” the authors wrote.
In 2019, the FDA approved a ketamine-derived nasal spray to treat depression. Several more studies have confirmed the drug’s benefits, with more clinical trials currently underway. Ketamine is being examined for everything from suicidal ideation to addiction.
Ketamine-assisted psychotherapy is also growing in popularity; in many cases, patients receive an IV infusion to ease them through trauma work. Ketamine-assisted therapy (KAP) is now widespread, with some companies even offering it as an employee benefit.
Sometimes called hallucinogens or entheogens, psychedelics are referred to as “psychoactive substances that alter perception and mood and affect numerous cognitive processes.” This is an extremely loose definition and applies to just about any illicit drug. Having said that, most people consider the main psychedelics to be psilocybin (magic mushrooms), LSD, mescaline, and DMT.
Drugs like MDMA (ecstasy), iboga, and ketamine, however, exist more in a psychedelic Venn diagram. Both their manufacturing process and pharmacology lead some to argue they are not true psychedelics.
Journalist and author Amanda Siebert tackled the debate in her book Psyched: Seven Cutting-Edge Psychedelics Changing the World. She divided the compounds into different groups: classic psychedelics, empathogens, and dissociatives.
Siebert believes that ketamine is technically psychedelic, but the type of “trip” you have is not like the others. This is one of the main differences between the drug and more widely recognized psychedelics.
“When I was writing my book, I debated including ketamine because it is very much in a category of its own,” Siebert told GreenState. “Where classic psychedelics such as psilocybin and LSD can prompt feelings of connectedness, ketamine prompts feelings of dissociation, making for a very different psychedelic experience.”
There are some similarities between ketamine and other psychedelics in terms of how they affect the brain. Siebert mentions the drug’s ability to promote neural plasticity, stimulating the growth of neurons essential for growth, learning, and function.
Scientifically, ketamine and traditional psychedelics like mushrooms exist in a sphere that overlaps here and there. In society, the debate continues.
The shifting perceptions of counterculture
For those who have ever embarked on a classical psychedelic journey, the “oneness” with humanity is often a critical component. Since ketamine effectively does not offer this, it’s clearly on a different level. But if ketamine does technically have a psychedelic component, then is the definition actually in the eye of the beholder?
Siebert writes in Psyched that the cultural perception around ketamine may lead some to be skeptical of its newfound popularity. The drug’s past use as an animal tranquilizer and a tool for abuse has led to stigma. In an interview with drug researcher Celia Morgan, the University of Exeter professor refers to ketamine as “the poor, slightly dirty relative” of psychedelics.
The clinical nature of ketamine may also raise eyebrows, given the desire for many to eschew synthetic medications widespread in Western healthcare systems. Ketamine has been widely studied and accepted within the medical community, far outpacing other psychedelics like psilocybin.
“Another thing that separates ketamine from other psychedelics is its status as a legal pharmaceutical,” noted Siebert. “While other psychedelics remain illegal, ketamine is included on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines, meaning it is among the safest and most effective medications in meeting the most important needs in a healthcare system.”
And while ketamine treatments could be considered psychedelic medicine, their roots differ from ancient, sacred medicines like psilocybin and ayahuasca. In that way, some may argue ketamine is co-opting the rich cultural history of these compounds.
So, is ketamine a psychedelic?
Ketamine may or may not be considered a psychedelic compound; it’s relatively subjective, just like the psychedelic realm itself. It all comes down to the intention, personal definitions, and the set and setting.
Siebert believes ketamine could have a positive impact in more ways than one, given its prevalence in healthcare. Since ketamine has less stigma in clinical settings, it may open minds from both medical and psychedelic circles.
“I decided to include (ketamine) in the book based on two things: its recreational use as a psychedelic and its off-label availability as an antidepressant,” Siebert concluded. “While not everyone will agree with my choice to include it, I believe off-label ketamine treatment has the potential to open the door to other psychedelics—sooner rather than later.”
Different or not, ketamine has cemented itself in the emerging psychedelic community. At conferences like Wonderland, several ketamine clinics, drug developers, and researchers are present.
Even if some have the opinion they don’t belong, there is one fact that can’t be denied: ketamine therapy is helping people every day. And if the true spirit of psychedelics is rooted in consciousness expansion and healing, the drug certainly holds this ethos.