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Special K and X

Dear Alice,

Lately, I have been doing a drug called Special K. I know it is a sedative/tranquilizer (what's the difference?), but very little about side effects, etc. Also, can you go over similar information about the drug X?

Thanks,
— Crankin'

Dear Crankin',

Unlike the cereal, Special K and X aren't parts of a complete meal. They also come with their own fine print of varying side effects, so read carefully if you choose to take them. First, you asked about the difference between a sedative and a tranquilizer. While they do have some pharmacological differences that medical doctors and veterinarians consider when sedating and anesthetizing an animal, when it comes to prescriptions that people may use more regularly (such as benzodiazepines), the differences are minimal. In fact, sometimes they're talked about interchangeably and because of their similar effects, they're often talked about as one category. For example, you asked about Special K, which is the street name for the drug ketamine hydrochloride. This is used as a sedative for humans, while it's used as a tranquilizer for animals. It's technically classified as a dissociative anesthetic and is considered a Schedule III drug by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. Other street names for ketamine include ketalar, ketaject, vitamin K, and super K. Ketamine has the effect of acting as a depressant, slowing the heart rate and breathing functions. X, on the other hand is a street name for MDMA or ecstasy. This is classified as a mood elevator. Ready to learn more about the two drugs? Keep on reading!

Ketamine is a legal prescription anesthetic for both people and animals, but some people use it recreationally. Ketamine effects last for only about an hour, making their short trip more enticing than other hallucinogens. These effects may kick in after one minute if injected, 5 to 15 minutes if snorted, and 30 minutes if swallowed. Like other dissociative drugs (including dextromethorphan and nitrous oxide), ketamine blocks a neurotransmitter called glutamate in the brain, which then blocks signals between the conscious mind with other parts of the brain. This results in the user feeling far away from their environment and insensitive to physical pain.

As with any drug, ketamine may affect everyone differently. At low doses, ketamine may give a mild, dreamy feeling of floating outside of the body referred to as “K-land” or a sinking feeling of bliss called “baby food.” Higher doses may have a more euphoric or hallucinogenic effect that causes users to feel even more disassociated from their bodies, to the point where they may become unable to move or communicate. Some people refer to this sensation as entering a "K-hole" and report that it feels like a near-death experience. Ketamine is known to cause negative reactions in some of its users. Some people may find the dissociative effects scary or disturbing, referring to this feeling as “God” because they believe to be flirting with death while under the influence. Side effects experienced during ketamine use as well as when the drug effects are fading during the comedown phase include:

  • Nausea
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety or violent paranoia
  • Impaired coordination and clumsiness
  • Confusion and memory loss
  • Aches and pains caused by stiffening of the muscles
  • Involuntary rapid eye movement, dilated pupils, and tear secretions
  • Salivation

There are few studies on the long-term effects of using ketamine, but some users become psychologically dependent. There's anecdotal evidence suggesting that frequent use may lead to depression, cognitive impairment, and disruptions of consciousness as well as physiological damage to the liver, kidney, bladder, and olfactory system. Because ketamine is a depressant, high doses may lower heart rate and breathing function, which could ultimately lead to death. This drug has also been used to facilitate sexual assault, wherein perpetrators use the substance to spike the drink of the person they intend to assault. If you believe that you experienced a drug-facilitated sexual assault, you may find it useful to reach out to a mental health professional or a survivor advocate in order to access support that can best help you make sense of your experiences. 

The other drug you mentioned, X, formally called methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), is a mood elevator or a short-term antidepressant. It works by increasing the release of serotonin, also a neurotransmitter, and results in feelings of relaxation and empathy. The effect of MDMA usually lasts four to six hours and may cause some day-after fatigue in its users. Similar to other substances, some users report having a negative reaction to MDMA, and it's not clear at what point and why a certain amount may be a lethal overdose for some and fine for others. Ecstasy is linked to severe anxiety, depression, and sleep problems in some users. If you're looking to learn more about ecstasy, the Go Ask Alice! archives has a number of questions dedicated specifically to the substance. You may find the questions about the types of ecstasy and its side effects helpful to more fully answer your question. 

Though you didn't specifically ask, you may be interested to know about the risks associated with combining the two substances. As these are both considered "club drugs," it's possible that they may be consumed together. For recreational purposes, these substances are unregulated in their production and distribution, they don't have reliable quality assurance. For example, ketamine capsules have been known to be sold as ecstasy, creating risks of overdose or other adverse effects. Additionally, combining the effects of an upper and downer together are unlikely to counteract the effects of the drugs. Rather than canceling the effects out, they may mask the effects of each other, making it difficult to determine when a person has had too much or depending on the substances, put various parts of the body under serious strain as they try to process multiple substances. If you choose to take ketamine, combining it with other depressants such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, or GHB may cause serious health problems, as they will also all work to slow down the heart and breathing rates. Ketamine, however, has fewer known risks associated with use of marijuana or tobacco. Ultimately, ketamine effects are dependent on the size of the person, the amount taken, the strength of the drug (which varies from batch to batch), and whether it's consumed with another substance. If you choose to continue using Special K, it's wise to keep in mind which other substances you consume it with, the environments in which you use the substance, and your own health history in order to reduce your risk as much as possible. 

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Last updated Jul 12, 2022
Originally published Feb 10, 1995

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