Ah, ketamine—is there a more fitting antidote for the surreal anxiety of our times? Shaking off its stigma as a sketchy horse tranquilizer, ketamine has recently usurped cocaine’s place in the popular imagination as the new “it” drug for the dissociation generation. “Ketamine puts life on airplane mode,” declared The Cut in a 2019 trend piece analyzing the substance’s surging popularity across tech, wellness, and nightlife sectors. As ketamine goes from obscure club drug to mainstream medicine—it’s even available for mail-order during this new era of social distancing—the rest of the world is figuring out what club kids have known for generations: Even if you’re experimenting off-label, this can be a powerful tool for healing and transformation.
While there are many ways to ingest ketamine, from traditional key bumps to futuristic ketamine pills, the underground nightlife community has recently been gravitating towards one particular method: ketamine nasal sprays. Of course, pairing nasal sprays with drugs is nothing new to the rave scene, and according to Mitchell Gomez, executive director at harm reduction nonprofit Dancesafe, most recreational ketamine users are still snorting it in powdered form. Still, Gomez notes that ketamine use is “way, way up,” and many ravers I spoke to observed that ketamine sprays were ubiquitous on dancefloors from Brooklyn to Berlin for at least the past two years, before the pandemic wiped out most of nightlife. So, why are k-sprays (as I like to call them) so popular amongst ravers—and what have they learned from their self-experimentations?
“K-sprays produce a more fluid high—it’s like a softer goddess. You feel the same dreaminess, but you are still mobile, and in this spiritual place where you’re in touch with yourself and your past.”
K-sprays offer the ability to modulate dosage more precisely than snorting powder, and many ravers say they are able to experience ketamine in a way that feels gentler and more therapeutic. “Ketamine can lay you out, and you can accidentally get into a k-hole really quickly,” says Rachel Rabbit White, a poet and sex work activist who was also the first person I heard use the term “k-spray.” “K-sprays produce a more fluid high—it’s like a softer goddess,” she continues. “You feel the same dreaminess, but you are still mobile, and in this spiritual place where you’re in touch with yourself and your past.” White says that recreational ketamine use has helped with her depression, giving her a chance to slow down and get in touch with herself. “You’re able to think deeply about your life and memories, at a time when the world feels unrooted,” she muses.
Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that DIY k-sprays have been taking off in tandem to ketamine being recognized as a medical breakthrough for depression. In March 2019, the FDA approved a patented nasal spray called Spravato, which is based upon esketamine—a filtered version of ketamine, as distinct from generic versions of the drug. And while Spravato can only be administered in ketamine clinics, k-sprays allegedly diverted from these clinics are coveted items in the club scene. L, a 26-year-old queer raver in Brooklyn, bought what his dealer said was medical esketamine during a trip to Berlin two years ago. “The dealer’s friend worked as a nurse in a hospital and stole some vials of it,” recalls L. At the time, he had heard of people doing ketamine nasally, but had little idea how to actually take it himself. So L asked his dealer for advice, and following her instructions, went to a pharmacy to buy a bottle of regular nasal spray, emptied it out, and filled it with the liquid esketamine to make his own DIY k-spray.
The spray ended up feeling light enough for L to stay in his body while managing social situations—an experience that other ravers echoed in their praise for the tractability of this method. Taking two 100mg doses, with one spray pump per nostril, was just enough to turn off his internal brain chatter without losing himself. “That was super fab,” he says with a laugh.
Similarly, White first encountered the phenomenon through a friend, who was doing ketamine therapy at a clinic, and had been given a bottle of the spray to take home. “My partner saw it and said, ‘we can do that ourselves!’” she says. Ketamine clinics can be prohibitively expensive, charging $350 to $1,000 per visit and requiring multiple visits, making these treatments out of reach to everyone without deep pockets; Johnson & Johnson, the maker of Spravato, has also been scolded by industry watchdogs for pricing its patented nasal spray at a whopping $4,720 to $6,785 for the first month of treatment. Thus, for many people, off-label administration is the only way to access ketamine’s therapeutic properties, and that’s exactly what White and her partner did—using a microwave, saline solution, and empty spray bottles they bought from Amazon. “A few months later, my partner and I were at some club in Bushwick, and everybody had a k-spray on the dancefloor,” says White. “We were looking around like, damn everybody is on that tip now!”
Making a homemade k-spray is fairly easy, but still way more effort than whipping out keys to do bumps of powder. Still, its popularity amongst ravers is largely due to its advantages as a harm reduction practice. “We love it for the convenience of the dosing,” says J, a 46-year-old banker who works at a major financial institution, and considers himself a nasal spray “evangelist.” J first encountered k-sprays through a friend in the New York underground techno community who brought it to a queer music festival they attended in 2018. J explained that unlike key bumps—which can be messy and hard to finagle on a crowded dancefloor—nasal sprays give users more control over their intake. “Once you try one spray, you can get a sense of how strong it is, and it’s easy to use a small amount,” J says.
Part of harm reduction can also mean reducing the likelihood of getting caught by authorities, and k-sprays can be incredibly discreet. “You don’t have to worry about people seeing you using drugs,” says J, who often brings several bottles of k-sprays to parties and passes them around to friends. “If I took it to the street, no one is going to bat an eye.”
(Here is where I will pause to note that k-sprays still aren’t completely safe: While they reduce the impact on the mucous membranes of snorting powders, a bottle can still contain harmful chemicals, especially if it’s made from street powder and/or hasn’t been tested. DanceSafe’s director of operations, Kristin Karas, also notes that sharing nasal sprays presents the risk of sharing bloodborne pathogens, so it’s always best to ensure you have your own personal snorting device.)
When I asked DanceSafe’s Mitchell Gomez how likely it is that k-sprays are getting offloaded from the backdoors of medical ketamine clinics to nightclub dancefloors, he was skeptical. “To be frank, that seems unlikely,” he says. “Although, as a Schedule III drug, the controls on ketamine are lower than something like pharmaceutical methamphetamine, there is still so much government oversight that the idea of widespread diversion seems frankly impossible.” Instead, Gomez suspects that this is more of a marketing tactic, with underground dealers advertising their wares as “diverted from a medical clinic” as a way of making them seem more attractive by changing people’s perception of risk. If this is true, it wouldn’t be too different from the widespread practice of weed dealers across the country claiming their goods come “straight from Cali” as a branding strategy.
For many people, off-label administration is the only way to access ketamine’s therapeutic properties.
Gomez also presents an alternate explanation for the spiking popularity of ketamine: In the early 2010s, much of the “ketamine” sold in illicit markets actually wasn’t ketamine, but rather substances like MXE and related dissociatives that have been linked to hospitalizations in the US and UK. “This rampant misrepresentation resulted in quite a few folks having difficult experiences, which I think tampered down use,” he says. According to Gomez, in recent years MXE has stopped popping up in the drug testing kits administered by DanceSafe, which sets up booths at many music festivals and raves. “As these ketamine analogue research chemicals have disappeared from the market, we’ve seen a huge resurgence of actual ketamine on the blackmarkets, and a subsequent rise in popularity,” says Gomez.
Ultimately, this resurgence of real-deal ketamine in the underground, coupled with the popularity of the k-spray method, has allowed many ravers to experience the therapeutic potential of this drug in a safer way. When L lost his job a year ago and went through a bout of depression, he realized that the ideal setting for the k-spray was not rowdy dancefloors, but chilled-out afterparties in the homes of close friends. “These soft launch situations where someone was helping guide me through it in hours-long conversations,” he says, let him see ketamine in a different light. “K-sprays calm those anxious voices in my head to connect more deeply with myself and others,” he adds with a smile. “It’s like therapy.”