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The Troubling Rise of DIY Ketamine Therapy

Ketamine has shown promise as a treatment for depression and anxiety — but only under a doctor’s care and in a medical setting. These guys, however, are dangerously attempting to hack its therapeutic benefits at home to help them quit smoking

Roughly four years ago, John, who was 20 at the time, believed he could address his worsening mental health through illicit psychoactive drugs. “I explored the whole psychedelic gamut — LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, mescaline and others — in the name of bettering my anxiety and depression,” he tells me. “And when I determined my addiction to cigarettes was the root of my problems, I turned to ketamine to help me quit.”  

Not long after smoking his first cigarette at 18, John, a pseudonym, had progressed to smoking two packs of American Spirits a week. The habit made his physically demanding job nearly impossible, and what little money he did make went right back into the next carton. “I needed to quit smoking to get my life back,” he says, “and I needed to do it fast.” 

“At the time, I happened to read what seemed like a pretty scientific and official interview in VICE with a physician who spoke about using ketamine for treating addiction,” John continues. “And when I remembered noticing a reduced desire to smoke or drink the first time I tried ketamine, I just put two-and-two together.” 

According to Boris Mackey, an addiction therapist and editor-in-chief of the addiction support website Rehab 4 Addiction, John is lucky to be alive. “Attempting to self-administer ketamine to overcome a nicotine addiction can lead to further substance addiction and even fatality,” Mackey explains. “Ketamine can place a person’s mental and physical health in extreme jeopardy, and no medical professional or expert would advise to attempt this.” (Ketamine, typically reserved for anesthesia in hospital settings but used increasingly for treating depression in clinical practices, is also used recreationally due to its hallucinogenic, tranquilizing and dissociative effects.) 

Daniel Crépault, program director of Harvest House, a residential drug and alcohol treatment program located in Canada, agrees with Mackey. “Like any drug that produces a euphoric effect, ketamine is addictive,” he tells me. “Users can become dependent on it, and over time, they can develop a tolerance, meaning they will need gradually larger doses to get the same effects as before and even experience withdrawal symptoms if they try and stop.” 

In essence, he says, using ketamine to quit smoking puts you at risk for either substituting one addiction for a more dangerous one, or just ending up addicted to both. To that end, Crépault likens self-administering ketamine to cure an addiction as “trying to use kindling to smother a fire — maybe it works, but chances are you’ll just end up with a bigger blaze than before.” 

Moreover, Mackey adds, when it comes to ketamine and nicotine addiction, ketamine’s potential use “is still in the very early stages of research and dependent on a variety of factors.” “There have been scientific studies published about the use of sub-anesthetic doses of ketamine to help break nicotine addiction,” he explains. “But those results, while promising, have only come from tests done on rats in a strictly controlled medical environment.” Thus, ketamine to break nicotine addiction “has in no way been promoted or advertised for human trial.” 

Nevertheless, there’s no shortage of DIY “doctors” on the internet who describe how they self-administered ketamine in hopes of curbing their addiction. On Reddit, for instance, users take to various ketamine-specific communities like r/ketamine, r/TherapeuticKetamine and r/DIYtk (Do It Yourself therapeutic ketamine) to ask questions and share their alleged successes with using it to kick cigarettes.

“Yesterday I made the decision to quit nicotine and I largely thank ketamine for helping me make the right choice,” writes one user in r/ketamine. “I’ve smoked on ketamine before and it feels fucking amazing,” another post reads, “so how can I trick my body into hating cigarettes or is that not how treating addiction with K works?” 

Did acid and ket make me quit smoking? from Drugs

Per John, the methodology of his experimental practice, which is reiterated in various forums, is to take ketamine and then “perform what is essentially therapy, because the ketamine makes it easier to instill new habits or break current ones.” In the process, he snorted ketamine daily over the course of seven days. For the most part, he only recalls the ketamine making him “unable to remember or recognize things, on top of an inability to think rationally,” but he says he tried to “ask myself why I smoke, and why I want to quit smoking, over and over.”  

As his experiment progressed, John says he found himself smoking less and less, before eventually realizing, I don’t want a cigarette right now.

But as much as John might believe that he successfully “rewired” his brain to no longer crave nicotine, Mackey says that’s not exactly the case. “People like to believe that not craving cigarettes is due to a rewiring of the brain, but in reality, it’s mostly due to the effects of ketamine on the body and mind,” he explains. “If you’re experiencing a depressive episode brought on by the use of ketamine, or feeling lethargic, nauseous, etcetera, you may find that you just don’t ‘want’ to smoke anymore. But while sober, you may still crave nicotine.” 

That’s basically what happened to John. While he hasn’t felt the urge to use ketamine again, his nicotine cravings have come crawling back. “Now when I really feel the urge, I use non-tobacco nicotine pouches instead of cigarettes,” he says. 

It’s for another, more important reason, though, that he doesn’t consider himself a success story. “I don’t wonder whether or not it was dangerous — it was dangerous, and I’d like to urge people not to do this themselves,” he tells me. “I was young and really stupid, and the more I look back on things, the more I think that it was my effort to better my mental health in the following years that helped me [quit cigarettes] the most.”  

Again, Mackey explains that ketamine’s potential use for breaking addiction isn’t unfounded — when, of course, it’s given in a medical setting, not self-administered at home. He does, though, worry about anything that purports to be a “miracle” cure for addiction. “It gives people the impression that addiction can be cured,” he says. “But unfortunately, an addiction cannot be cured, it can only be treated.” 

Crépault, himself a recovering addict with over 16 years of sobriety, puts it another way. “Substituting one substance for another is an attempt to avoid the pain or discomfort of quitting,” he says. “Quitting any addiction sucks. It’s hard work, uncomfortable and painful, but it’s a process that hardens your resolve and leads to long-term success. Taking shortcuts or looking for the easier, softer way usually only leads to relapse.”