Ketamine in a vial

Ketamine in a vial (© kittisak -

Matthew Perry’s premature death shocked people around the globe. The actor, adored in his role as Chandler Bing on “Friends” in the 1990s and early 2000s, was open about his struggles mightily with drug addiction. Of late, he had returned to the spotlight as the author of his remarkably candid autobiography and as an advocate for sobriety and recovery from addiction.

Naturally, that was the first thing the public asked about his death – had Perry relapsed into drug use? He was found dead in his hot tub, and his demise was attributed to ketamine — a drug originally not intended for humans. So, why are people taking ketamine now, and why does it seem to be growing in popularity? Most importantly, however, here’s what you need to know about the dangers of using ketamine for any reason.

Ketamine was developed in 1963 as a replacement for the then-commonly used drug PCP. In humans, ketamine was first used by soldiers during the Vietnam War. It is an approved medical product as an injectable, short-acting anesthetic for use in humans and animals and a nasal spray for treatment-resistant depression.

Ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic that has some hallucinogenic effects. It distorts the perception of sight and sound and makes the user feel disconnected and not in control, detached from their pain and environment. Ketamine can induce a state of sedation (feeling calm and relaxed), immobility, relief from pain, and amnesia (no memory of events while under the influence of the drug). However, people can abuse ketamine for the dissociative sensations and hallucinogenic effects. Ketamine has also been used to facilitate sexual assault.

Ketamine is typically passed out among friends and acquaintances, most often at nightclubs, parties, music festivals, and concerts. Along with other “club drugs,” it has become especially popular among teens.

Most of the ketamine illegally distributed in the United States is diverted or stolen from legitimate sources, particularly veterinary clinics, or smuggled into the United States from Mexico. Powdered ketamine is formed from pharmaceutical ketamine by evaporating the liquid using hot plates, warming trays, or microwave ovens, a process that results in the formation of crystals, which are then ground into powder.

Ketamine on a table
Ketamine (by DMTrott is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.)

9 Dangers Of Using Ketamine


One of the most dangerous effects of ketamine is the helpless and/or confused state the user may enter after using the drug. The numbness, weakness, and impaired vision caused by the drug can put an individual in a highly vulnerable state. This is one of the reasons ketamine is often referred to as a date rape drug and is used to commit acts of sexual assault.

Respiratory Depression

Severe respiratory depression is one of the most harmful side-effects of high doses of ketamine. Abusing the drug can lead to extremely shallow breathing or even stop respiration. This can result in brain damage and death if the individual is not treated quickly enough.


According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), many users take the drug in high doses in an attempt to experience “the K-hole” — an out-of-body, near-death experience. This desired effect, however, often occurs directly before an overdose which can put users in extreme danger.

Impaired Judgement

The DEA reports that “a ‘Special K’ trip is preferred to LSD or PCP because its hallucinatory effects are relatively brief, lasting about 30 to 60 minutes, rather than several hours.”

Although the “high” is brief, an individual can still endanger themselves because of their hallucinations and delusions. In addition, the drug’s ability to affect the individual’s judgment and coordination can last up to 24 hours following initial use.


Ketamine can cause flashbacks after the consumer is no longer intoxicated. This effect can occur in those who have not been taking the drug over a lengthy period, as opposed to other hallucinogens, which often do not cause flashbacks until long-term abuse has occurred.


Tolerance occurs extremely quickly among ketamine abusers, causing them to take the drug in greater and greater doses with each subsequent use. This increases the risks of addiction and overdose.


Aggressive or violent behavior can occur. A person may self-injure or hurt someone else; these reactions are unpredictable.


Amnesia is a common side-effect of ketamine use. This becomes more problematic with long-term abuse. It’s another reason why the drug is used to facilitate sexual assault.

Insensitivity to Pain

When a person is intoxicated, they become increasingly insensitive to pain. Many individuals are injured while on the drug and do not realize it, causing them not to seek medical attention when they need it.

What can people learn from Perry’s death?

  • Addiction is a terminal illness. Few addicts recover without intervention. There is no cure.
  • No matter how long an individual has been in recovery, they never become invulnerable to relapse, especially with their substance of choice.
  • Addicts who are using (whatever substance) erroneously think, “I’ve got this!” I suspect Perry thought he could handle taking ketamine in the hot tub.
  • Money and power can be deadly for an addict. Someone with both can keep juggling the balls in the air right up until death. They have lots of enablers.
  • Addicts cannot tolerate, with safety, using any mood-altering substance. Any can trigger a downfall.
  • Health professionals and advocates who are in recovery, and work with recovering people, relapse too.
Matthew Perry at Smarter Justice: Lessons from the American problem-solving court movement | 16.12.2013.
Matthew Perry at Smarter Justice: Lessons from the American problem-solving court movement | 16.12.2013. (Photo by Policy Exchange is licensed under CC BY 2.0.)

If you’re concerned about someone who looks like they are not doing well, say something. Better to lose a friendship than lose a person.

Be a caring, courageous friend. I wasn’t shocked by Perry’s death. In his appearances on television the last few months of his life, he looked pretty unwell. There’s scruffy-chic, and then there’s a scruffy-sloppy. At the time, I suspected he was using. He spoke unnaturally slowly, and, at times, his speech was slurred. I wonder if anyone confronted him. We are our bothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

About Dr. Faith Coleman

Dr. Coleman is a graduate of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and holds a BA in journalism from UNM. She completed her family practice residency at Wm. Beaumont Hospital, Troy and Royal Oak, MI, consistently ranked among the United States Top 100 Hospitals by US News and World Report. Dr. Coleman writes on health, medicine, family, and parenting for online information services and educational materials for health care providers.

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