The Ketamine Mirage
And what it tells us about the Drug War
I thought I had done my homework. I checked out the first 10 pages of Google search results on “Ketamine” and “Depression” and saw nothing but cautious nods to the potential efficacy of the drug in fighting the blues. Might ketamine finally be one effective medicine that my government would actually allow me to use against my chronic depression? I called some of the companies already providing the drug and heard nothing but glowing accounts of the substance. I began checking out the location of these service providers and pondering budget schemes that would help me afford the high price tag for such treatment.
Just before I was ready to start making reservations for therapy, however, I ran across an unsolicited email from Hong Kong researchers warning of the rise of uropathy (urinary problems) in Ketamine users in Eastern Asia. The researchers claimed that ketamine use could result in the de-structuring of bladders, ureters, and kidneys.
This sounded highly suspicious to me at first, and for two reasons: 1) I had seen nothing but cautious praise for ketamine therapy in that Google Search I mentioned above — and not so much as one single mention of potential urinary problems. Not one. 2) I knew that my own government had been lying to me about psychoactive drugs for well over half a century, demonizing coca and opium and psychedelics, when all three drugs have been used responsibly for millennia, not just by other cultures but by western luminaries as well. I knew that Benjamin Franklin enjoyed opium, that HG Wells swore by coca wine, that Plato’s philosophy had been informed by the psychedelic rituals at Eleusis, and that the entire Vedic-Hindu religion had been inspired by the psychoactive plant medicine(s) known as soma. If we unscientifically demonize drugs here in this “free and democratic country” of ours, why should I listen to a scare campaign coming from a seemingly less free and democratic country such as China (and/or a Special Administrative Region thereof)?
I didn’t brush the topic under the rug, however. I did my due diligence, or so I thought. I called one of the main doctors providing highly publicized ketamine treatment in Florida and asked him directly: “Is there a risk of urinary problems resulting from ketamine use?” He gave me an unequivocal no. In fact, he had never heard of such a thing. Never.
Okay, I was depressed and I wanted to believe him — and it seemed like I was being reasonable given those hope-giving search results I mentioned above. So I then shut down my search and began scheduling therapy.
Of course, had I really done due diligence and not listened solely to self-interested parties, I would have discovered there was much more to be worried about when it comes to ketamine than I wanted to believe. It turns out that it really matters what search terms you use on a Google search. If you search for “ketamine and depression,” you will see only relatively positive stories about ketamine and depression. This makes sense from the point of view of algorithms. For if a story about ketamine is full of words associated with “urology,” it is less likely to appear prominently under a search for the terms “ketamine and depression.” What I found out, however, to my later horror, was that if you search Google for “ketamine and uropathy,” you are swamped with results of stories flagging the dangers of ketamine use when it comes to the bladder, the ureter and the kidneys.
I will add in my defense that I was 64 at the time, and so my eventual decision to move forward with ketamine was also based on the fact that long-term negative effects were of slightly less concern for me than they might be for an 18-year-old.
And so I began what turned out to be five months of daily ketamine nasal spray therapy for depression.
The good news: ketamine did give me blessed relief from the strength-sapping defeatist “mind talk” which is the nemesis of the overthinking depressed, a blessed temporary escape from full-on consciousness. (By the way, this is one benefit of so-called “drug use” of which the Drug Warrior, in their psychological naivete, never takes account: namely, the “blessed temporary escape from full-on consciousness.”) Besides being good in and of itself, the mere anticipation of these “mental escapes” was itself a godsend, giving me the motivation to carry on when “sober” under what might otherwise seem to be overwhelming sadness.
The bad news: Eastern Asia was right. After five months of use, I began noticing very subtle indications of potential urinary trouble.
Of course, I ceased use at once, fearful that I had not done so in time.
I don’t entirely regret my experience, however, given my age and the extent of my depression. The experience also gave me more insight into how psychoactive medicine and disassociation can ease the mind. But make no mistake: if the price I pay turns out to be high, medically speaking, then America’s Drug War is to blame, thanks to which we schedule and/or greenlight drugs not based on scientific facts and reports of actual usage, but rather based on political and capitalistic considerations alone.
MORAL OF THE STORY: The Drug Warrior would love to parley my misadventure into a morality tale against “drug use” in general, but the real villain of this piece is the Drug War itself, which has never taught us to understand drugs but rather to fear them. Far from trying to educate us, they lie to us, telling us that medicines that created entire religions actually “fry the brain” — this after drilling it into our heads as children that “drugs” are the one “boogieman” that we must fear for our entire life. According to the Drug Warrior, the monster under our bed is imaginary, but the boogieman of drugs is an eternal presence before which we must tremble for a lifetime.
Thus the Drug Warrior is the Great Chicken Little of modern society. We all discount his pronouncements because we know that he lies, exaggerates and tells half-truths. The problem is however that the Chicken Little (like the broken clock) is right on rare occasions — even when he himself does not realize it — and in those cases folks like myself are going to turn a deaf ear to what may turn out to be very valid anti-Drug Warnings, indeed.
So, I’ll tell you what. Let’s fix this so that it never happens to anyone again, either with ketamine or any other “godsend” that gets promoted based on capitalist motivations rather than scientific ones. Here’s how.
In the post-Drug War world that I envision, where we have re-legalized mother nature and mind drugs in general (where we have rejected, in short, the government’s right to tell us how we can think and feel…) we would replace the Drug Enforcement Agency with the Drug Education Agency — and that agency would be full of pharmacologically savvy and empathic individuals with a deep knowledge of the sociocultural history of substance use around the world — including every drug from sugar to heroin, from coffee to coca, from Monster Energy drinks to opium, from Big Pharma anti-depressants to psychedelics and MDMA. They would be completely independent, free (and duty-bound) to bring out every objective bad side — and every subjective good side — to every possible form of psychoactive substance use.
This new — and demilitarized — DEA -would have an online FAQs page, where users and potential users could ask any question they want about any psychoactive substance in the world — and would get honest answers, based on the subjective and objective reports of actual users of the substances in question, both in modern times and the past. I’m talking about the kind of unbounded honesty that neither Drug Warriors nor self-interested capitalists can even imagine: a FAQs page that would actually tell you that modern anti-depressants lead to lifelong dependency, that intermittent opium sessions can increase creativity under proper circumstances, and that the coca leaf can sharpen your mental focus without yet ruining your life, as the Drug Warrior would insist must happen when using such an “evil drug.”
Complete honesty. That’s the answer to the Drug War. Facts not fear.
In such a world, the depressed would not have to wonder whom to believe when considering new potential treatments like ketamine: they could ‘ask the ‘Drug Education Agency’ experts’, who, unfettered by either financial interests or the ideology of substance demonization, would clearly tell us the truth about the dangers and benefits of any and all psychoactive substances on planet earth, natural or human made.