Clubbers Who Take Illegal Drugs Like MDMA May Be Unwittingly Using Ketamine, Scientists Warn

Clubbers who take recreational drugs may unwittingly be using the illegal drug ketamine, research has revealed.

Some 36.7 percent of party-goers in New York City who took part in the study tested positive for ketamine, an anesthetic substance that is also taken recreationally illegally. But only 14.6 percent said they had taken it in the past year, according to the study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

A total of 794 people attending electronic dance music club nights in New York City between January and August 2019 answered questions about their drug use for the research. Of those, 141 gave hair samples, which could be analyzed by scientists.

The team found participants who tested positive for MDMA, an illegal psychoactive party drug, were more likely to test positive for ketamine despite not reporting that they had taken it. In the paper, the authors explained it is common for MDMA to be cut with other substances.

Lead author Joseph Palamar, an associate professor of population health at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, told Newsweek: "Drug use is often intentionally underreported on surveys for various reasons. But we detected substantial underreporting among people who reported high rates of use of other drugs like ecstasy and cocaine.

The team reasoned that someone willing to report using illicit drugs such as ecstasy or cocaine wouldn't then intentionally deny ketamine use. "While indeed there is likely intentional underreporting of ketamine use, we believe that a lot of underreported use may be due to partiers being unwittingly exposed. This can happen if ketamine is present in drugs purported to be ecstasy or cocaine," he said.

Palamar, who is also a researcher with the Center for Drug Use and HIV/HCV Research at NYU School of Global Public Health, added: "We were pretty surprised by these findings. We didn't expect a drug like ketamine to be severely underreported in this scene.

"Ketamine is not the type of drug you want to use accidentally. If you think you're using a drug like ecstasy and it contains a large portion of ketamine, you might be in for an unexpected and unpleasant dissociative experience," he said.

Also used as a recreational drug, ketamine can provide a buzz. However it can be fatal, particularly when taken with other substances. Long-term use can cause serious bladder problems.

The authors acknowledged the study was limited because they could not tell whether the respondents denied using the drug on purpose, and the results might not relate to wider populations. More research is needed to unpick these problems, the authors wrote.

The paper comes amid what is known as the psychedelic renaissance, which has seen researchers around the world investigate the potential benefits of patients taking psychedelic drugs like LSD and magic mushrooms in controlled settings. Scientists are also looking at the potential medical uses of ketamine, which they believe could be used to treat conditions including depression and alcoholism.

The authors wrote: "As media coverage about medical benefits of ketamine continues, it is important to continue to examine current trends in both known and unknown use of this drug."

Palamar said: "These findings confirm that more research involving 'drug checking' is needed in order to inform the public about what drugs really contain."

Asked what readers should take from the study, Palamar said: "If someone insists on using an illegal synthetic drug, he or she should at least test it to make sure it doesn't contain other drugs."

Conducting a study on a topic as sensitive as drug use can be tough, Palamar explained.

"It's hard enough to get someone to take a survey on their way into a nightclub, but some people are very wary about the hair collection part. Although, a lot of respondents do enjoy it and find it amusing. We always stress to people that this study is important as it informs prevention and harm reduction efforts in the EDM [electronic dance music] scene.

"Also, not everyone has enough hair to provide, and collecting hair outside can be difficult, especially during winter months. Someone may be willing to give a hair sample and next thing you know the sample blows away in the wind."

Ian Hamilton, an expert in drug use and mental health at the Department of Health Sciences at the U.K.'s University of York who did not work on the study, told Newsweek: "Despite the long history of using drugs while enjoying music, we know relatively little about this topic. This research provides important insights to the way drugs are used in these settings, revealing not only the extent of under-reporting of drug use in this population but also highlights that many party-goers aren't fully aware of the psychoactive ingredients they are exposed to."

He said: "The clear message from this research is that the drugs people think they are taking are either contaminated or don't have the psychoactive ingredients they think they have, this matters as people can react differently to drugs and may combine drugs based on what they think they are consuming rather than what they are actually using."

night club
A stock image shows party-goers at a night club. Researchers spoke to clubbers for their study on ketamine. Getty