The Sad Demise of Nancy Lee, One of Britain’s Young Ketamine Casualties
Ketamine is that crazy wobbly-leg drug. The wacky-student drug, the post-club chill-out aid, the new-gen LSD that gives users the power to become—according to 1970s K-hole explorer and dolphin whisperer John C. Lilly—“peeping toms at the keyhole of eternity.” But its reputation as a popular recreational drug, since filtering into the mainstream via the gay-clubbing and free-party scenes in the 2000s, does not tell the whole story of what’s going on in modern British K-land.
Apart from a brief paragraph in the Brighton Argus’s obituary column, Nancy Lee’s drug death went unreported. There was no shock factor: She hadn’t collapsed in public from a toxic reaction to a pill or a line of powder in a club. Instead, at the age of 23, Nancy had died slowly over seven years, her body trashed by a steady diet of ketamine.
Nancy started using ketamine at age 16 when she made new friends. Most teenagers getting high in the local Brighton park were necking cider and smoking skunk, but Nancy and her group of indie-kid outsiders used the open spaces to take ketamine. It was cheap, at 12 grams for about $150, and, important for Nancy, it transported her away from real life.
“She was sensitive and very caring, but Nancy was a misfit,” her father Jim, a college lecturer, told me. “She was bullied at school because of a bad squint and for being a tomboy. She had a victim mentality, a feeling that the world was against her.” It’s just that Nancy ended up finding solace in ketamine. “If someone were to design the perfect drug for a teenager who is depressed and doesn’t have much money, this would be it,” Jim said.
The VICE Guide to Raving
Everyone’s a raver now. “Guitar music is dead” is the kind of thing your dad says—that’s how dead it is. Now, it’s all beats and bells and whistles. The future you glimpsed in 90s movies, when everyone’s into techno and has slime-green hair, is upon us.
But while so many of us go raving, the vast majority get it wrong. Be it the drugs, the joy, the communal toilets, or the pressure not to look like a dick, we often end up looking like dicks. We eyeball the DJ, we pump our fists, we kiss Europeans, and we piss our paychecks away on booze and drugs only to throw it all up later that night.
So treat this as Raving for Dummies: a kind of self-help manual for people who can deal with week-long comedowns. Maybe it seems fascistic to tell people how to behave at an event that’s supposed to be about hedonistic release, but watch this video and you’ll understand that perhaps the new graduating class of rave enthusiants could use a bit of guidance.
This is imperative. Looking good is one of the fundamental cornerstones of youth culture; however, that’s not really the case when opting for board shorts and rape-culture-slogan T-shirts. Remember, this all-important sense of aesthetic belonging is what all great cultural movements were built upon.
Except now it isn’t. Some people still make a valiant effort, but really, how long can you spend angling your Night Slugs fitted cap? You aren’t Michael Alig or Sting in Quadrophenia; you’re just one of those guys who gets his fade shaped up once a week. The days of people doing their hair with eggs and glue, ironing their Mohair jackets, or pouring blue paint over their heads are consigned to the past.
Modern club fashion is, by and large, cozily utilitarian—easy to wear, machine-washable, and unlikely to get you attacked at Sunday recovery brunch session. Sure, it’d be great if someone did push the boat out a bit, but in what direction? People standing near repetitive beats have a shameful sartorial history of bleached dreadlocks and furry, flourescent legwarmers; if fashion had a Hague, everyone at Electric Daisy Carnival would stand trial for war crimes. So maybe it’s best to stick with the streetwear.
Photo by Marco Tulio Valencia
Sorry to break it to you, but they’re all awful and they’re all bastards. By now, every dealer realized that cutting corners isn’t going to put a dent in their customer base. Especially not when that same customer base strictly buys drugs when they’re drunk and happy to shell out $100 for some mix of boric acid, levamisole, and a cursory dose of whatever it is that they actually want to buy.
The Rise and Rise of the UK’s Student Drug Dealers
If the greatest architects, theorists, and social planners who’ve ever lived were revived to design the perfect marketplace for drug dealers, they’d come up with a dorm. A nest stuffed with trainee adults, bankrolled by mom and dad, waiting like baby birds with their beaks wide open for their next life-changing experience. Dealers might not be allowed to actually vomit the drugs into the mouths of students, but dorms—which are often called “halls” in the UK—nontheless remain a drug merchant’s wet dream. Which is why they’ve been living in them for decades.
Nearly three quarters of Britain’s 2.5 million university students have taken illegal drugs. So it follows that somebody has to be there feeding the country’s future politicians, business leaders, and unemployed actors their weed, MDMA, cocaine, and ketamine (that last substance is up to ten times more likely to be used by students than non-students).
In fact, the student drug market is so sought after that dealers have been known to enroll in colleges specifically to take out student loans and sell drugs on campus. Then, of course, there are all the student dealers—those who begin their higher education with good intentions, but realize that working at a bar isn’t much fun and start selling drugs as a source of quick cash. If you live in halls and don’t know who this guy or girl is yet, take it as a sign that you should get some more friends.
We Need to Talk About London’s Club Drug Problem
Dr. Owen Bowden-Jones is the founder of London’s Club Drug Clinic, started in 2011, which aims to provide aid to people who have “begun to experience problems with their use of recreational drugs.” After they were overwhelmed with users of ketamine, cocaine, ecstasy, and legal substances who wanted help, a second clinic was opened earlier this year.
Unlike heroin and crack, for which many rehabilitation and counselling services exist, party drugs often aren’t associated with bad things like addiction, losing your job, losing your mind, and ruining your life. Owen hopes that in addition to helping individual users, his clinics will spread understanding of the dangers of these relatively new drugs through the medical world.
I gave Owen a call to find out what he’s discovered from treating people.
VICE: Has drug use changed much in the UK in the past ten to 15 years?
Owen Bowden-Jones: What we’ve seen are relatively major reductions in heroin and crack use and an increase in a new group of drugs called “club drugs”—things like ketamine, MDMA, and mephedrone.
I’m familiar with the category. What about the ways in which people take them?
Actually, we’re finding that quite a few of these people are beginning to inject their drugs, especially mephedrone and ketamine. So all of the very real dangers that we used to see with heroin injecting, we’re now beginning to see with these newer club drugs.
Oh, dear. What are the drugs that cause the most problems?
Here at the Club Drug Clinic, the four main drugs we’ve seen have been ketamine, GBL or GHB, crystal meth, and mephedrone. You can often determine the drug someone’s using [when they come in]. It seems to split along the lines of sexuality. We’re seeing a lot of gay men using crystal meth and GBL—for sex—while we’re seeing a lot of straight clubbers and students using ketamine and mephedrone. Interestingly, we’ve hardly seen anybody come into the clinic saying they’ve got a problem with MDMA or ecstasy—that just hasn’t happened.
Interview with a Ketamine Scientist
There are medicinal chemists who work on an unseen side of the pharmaceutical industry. Like their legally sanctioned counterparts, they work to synthesize drugs they hope will produce therapeutic effects in their users. But they do not work with billion-dollar budgets or advertising agencies; doctors are not bribed to distribute their products with ergonomic pens or fine terrycloth beach towels. Their advertising comes solely from word of mouth and semicautionary articles like the one you are about to read.