It's the sixties all over again but unlike that time, when everyone smoked pot and cocaine, there are now so many more "recreational" substances out there. What are some of these disco playthings? What are their potential side effects? Now a list of side effects will probably not convince anyone not to try something, but a little knowledge, unlike an overdose, never hurt anyone. OutUK Health Correspondent Tod Companion brings you up to speed on the latest information.


People ask the most about Special K; What is it? Why do it? Is it used for killing horses? Does it make elephants drool? K stands for Ketamine, a surgical anesthetic developed in the sixties and used on the battlefields of Vietnam. Today Ketamine is used primarily in veterinary medicine; my cat gets it when she's a bit too frisky at the vet. It's used sparingly in humans, mostly with children and the aged. In street doses, Ketamine is a powerful hallucinogen. As a powder, smoked or inhaled, the effects of K are intense psychedelic hallucinations, which can last from half an hour to 2 hours. One's sense of time and identity are often lost. Users often describe an "understanding" or belief that "it all makes sense." K-people can often be seen in groups, "being as one."

K works on the opiod receptors in the brain, the same ones triggered by the Victorians' drug of choice opium, and you can quickly become addicted to it. The "K Hole" describes a deep disorientation, almost catatonic state, experienced by some users. The neurochemical guru, John Lily (the inspiration for the film "Altered States") described his extensive contact with extraterrestrials on K and his telepathic communication with other K-users and K-entities through K-cyberspace.

Ketamine is sold as a liquid, but for recreational use, it is usually dried into a powder. How and where this took place is anyone's guess. You wouldn't eat food off the floor, but you could take K that was dried in a pan in an oven. Like most drugs, it's impossible to know the strength of what it is you are taking and how pure it is.

The porn star Joey Stefano died of a "horse" overdose of heroin and Ketamine in 1995. This is similar to a locally popular blend of cocaine and Ketamine, charmingly referred to as "CK one." The highest immediate risk is for sudden, sever respiratory problems. An OD can be fatal. Other side effects include delirium, amnesia and impaired motor functions.


E stands for Ecstasy, which is a second-generation designer drug. The first were derivatives of fentanyl, another surgical anesthetic. These proved dangerous, causing debilitating seizures, sudden death, and other unpopular side effects.

Ecstasy is MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), a psychotropic drug originally developed as an appetite suppressant, but side effects and toxicity made it unpopular. MDMA and its chemical cousin MDEA or "Eve," are synthetic drugs, which are both stimulants and hallucinogens. Like amphetamines, Ecstasy is a stimulant, which energizes the user. Also a hallucinogen, E induces a happy, placid state of mind. This can translate to fearlessness and semi-permanent amnesia at higher doses. E is often mixed with other stimulants like crystal meth or hallucinogens such as PCP or LSD. 50% of E users report very unpleasant side effects, 30% report they wouldn't try it again.

Many people experience elevated body temperature while on E. This hyperthermia can kill. Ecstasy also interferes with blood flow in the brain. Ecstasy works by depleting the serotonin levels in your brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, which is involved in both mood and temperature control. Serotonin is made only slowly by the body, and can take days or even weeks to replace. This accounts for the depression, anxiety and sluggishness reported after E use. E is also toxic to the liver, and chronic users often die of liver failure.

Think twice about Ecstasy while you are being treated for depression. If you take antidepressants, (especially Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft) serotonin is something you want to keep around. Sudden depletion of serotonin (serotonin syndrome) has been linked to psychotic breaks and random, schizophrenic-like behavior.


A few years ago, people began marketing "herbal" Ecstasy. This mix of caffeine and other chemicals, usually ephedra, gives a high-energy buzz. This mix isn't really very herbal at all. The marketers found "natural" sources for stimulants and repackaged them. The caffeine comes from the Kola nut, which has huge amounts of caffeine. Ephedra is similar to a common decongestant. Ephedra has been used for centuries in Asia, under its herbal name, Ma Haung, to stimulate free breathing in people with asthma. Psuedophedrine, the active ingredient in Sudafed, is a chemical relative of ephedra.

Here again, dosage is a problem. Normally, you wouldn't eat a pile of coffee beans or an entire Ma Haung plant. Yet that's the amount of caffeine or ephedra in some herbal E. Guarana is another common ingredient in herbal E. It is similar to amphetamines, and an energizing effect makes it popular in herbal diet aids. While less risky than MDMA, Some people are allergic to these herbs and these products can dehydrate you, damage your liver or affect your mood or breathing. Natural does not always equal safe.


GHB has made a big splash lately. GHB, or Gamma-Hydroxybutyrate, is a chemical cousin to the neurotransmitter, gamma amino butyric acid (GABA). GABA can act as an inhibitor in the brain and GHB is thought to act similarly. Purified in the seventies, GHB was first used to treat heroin and other drug addicts. At low doses, GHB induces calm and can quell the trauma of withdrawl during detox. Bodybuilders take GHB because of unsubstantiated claims of increased muscle growth. Recreational users seek euphoria. At high doses (and the threshold varies) GHB can cause autonomic suppression, slowing the heart and breathing, even to the point of death.

GHB overdoses result in a coma, and are usually treated like an OD of something else. In combination with alcohol, GHB has led to cardiac arrest. Following the this year's massive White Party in Palm Springs in the US, the local ER was filled with GHB overdoses, and doctors who didn't know what to do. This has become so common that many party promoters in the states are now placing overdose management teams at their events.

Researchers at the University of Florida tried making GHB, but the formulas they got off the Internet produced something toxic or nothing at all. The GHB the purchased at clubs varied widely in strength and purity. GHB is often touted as a natural substance, but it is synthetic. Simply because a drug resembles something in your brain, there is no reason to add several hundred times the usual amount. Adrenaline was once touted as a potential drug, but the tiniest overdose can be fatal. Neurochemistry is delicate and complex; changing it is sometimes interesting, sometimes horrible.


The grandfather of all disco drugs is Poppers. These chemicals, Amyl or Butyl Nitrate, provide an instant, profound euphoria and sexual arousal. Music sounds great, and sex is enhanced. The rush is short lived and frequent doses are normal. Tolerance builds with use, so the doses get larger. The first side effect is usually a skull-splitting headache, then nausea and depression. Mixed with alcohol, these effects become more potent. Long term use can lead to dependence for sexual arousal, recurrent headaches and diminished sense of smell. If you are older, or have medical conditions, poppers can cause palpitations, or even heart attack. Poppers do not mix well with other drugs, particularly Viagra or other similar erection enhancers, so do not mix under any circumstances.

There is an irony associated with drug use. Public health studies indicate that, despite medical evidence to the contrary, drugs like Special K and Ecstasy are perceived as less risky than harder drugs like cocaine and speed. A sample of drugs available at a rave in the UK showed that the E being sold was actually Special K, and the K being sold was actually powdered Rohypnol the date rape drug.


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