Is Ketamine Legal?

Learn more about the legal status of Ketamine, from anesthetic to club drug to promising treatment for depression.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
Updated January 31, 2024

Ketamine is a fast-acting "dissociative anesthetic," a type of hallucinogenic drug that alters a person's perception of reality.

Ketamine is a controlled substance regulated by the federal government. Since the 1970s, ketamine has been commercially produced and sold as a short-acting anesthetic and pain reliever for humans and animals. More recently, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approved esketamine (a more potent version of ketamine) in the form of a nasal spray for treatment-resistant depression. The drug is also used illegally by people to get high.

Here's an overview of ketamine laws in the United States, including penalties for illegal possession of ketamine and other ketamine-related crimes.

What Is Ketamine?

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) describes ketamine as a "dissociative anesthetic that has some hallucinogenic effects."

The federal Controlled Substance Act classifies drugs in a tiered system of five schedules—Schedules I to V. Schedule I drugs, like heroin, are deemed to have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use. It's always illegal to use or possess Schedule I drugs. Schedule II to V drugs are legal to possess and use with a valid prescription.

Ketamine is a Schedule III drug under the Controlled Substance Act. Schedule III drugs have legitimate medical uses and a low to moderate potential for abuse. Other examples of Schedule III drugs include Tylenol with codeine, anabolic steroids, and testosterone.

What Does Ketamine Look Like?

Ketamine is typically sold as a clear liquid or a white powder.

When used to put people to sleep for surgery or to manage pain, ketamine is given as an intravenous injection (IV) or an intramuscular injection (IM). People who use ketamine to get high usually swallow, snort, or inject it. You can also smoke it with marijuana or tobacco.

How Does Ketamine Make You Feel?

Ketamine, like other dissociative drugs, can distort a user's sense of self, sights, colors, sounds, and time. Ketamine affects people differently based on their size, the amount taken, and how it's taken.

At high doses, ketamine can cause sedation, immobility, and amnesia. Some users describe experiencing a scary feeling of complete sensory detachment (called a "K-hole").

At lower doses, ketamine reduces pain, produces a trance-like feeling of relaxation, and causes clumsiness, drowsiness, and confusion.

Users typically feel the effects of ketamine quickly, often within a few minutes of ingesting it. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, ketamine can impair a user's senses, judgment, and coordination for up to 24 hours even though its hallucinogenic effects usually last for only 45 to 90 minutes.

Is Ketamine Safe?

Ketamine is safe when it's prescribed by a doctor and administered in a clinical setting. But using the drug at home or at a club is associated with real risks.

According to American Addiction Centers, some of the adverse risks of ketamine use include:

  • amnesia
  • elevated blood pressure
  • breathing difficulties
  • problems with coordination and judgment
  • seizures
  • ulcerative cystitis (damage to the bladder), and
  • addiction.

The risk of death from ketamine alone is low, but ketamine use is associated with accidental injury and death. In late 2023, Mathew Perry, the Friends actor, was found dead in the heated end of his pool. Postmortem blood tests showed high levels of ketamine in his system. According to the Associated Press (AP), a doctor who reviewed Perry's autopsy said that the amount of ketamine in his blood was enough to have made him lose consciousness and his ability to keep himself above the water.

You should only use ketamine in a medical setting. Ketamine shouldn't be mixed with other substances you should never use it while you're alone.

Is Ketamine Illegal?

Ketamine is legal when a licensed health care professional prescribes it. Possessing ketamine without a prescription is illegal.

Esketamine: Legal Use of Prescription Ketamine

The FDA approved ketamine as an anesthetic in 1970. Surgeons and emergency departments have been safely using ketamine for decades to sedate patients and relieve their pain.

In 2019, after many years of clinical research, the FDA approved Spravato (esketamine), the first ketamine-derived medication for adults with challenging-to-treat major depressive disorder. Spravato is a nasal spray that must be used under the supervision of a health care provider in a health care setting.

"Off-Label" Uses of Ketamine

Some health care professionals and patients are avoiding the strict safety measures and potential insurance coverage issues associated with Spravato, by prescribing ketamine "off-label" to treat anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other psychiatric conditions. Off-label prescribing is when a licensed health care professional prescribes an FDA-approved medication to treat conditions outside of its original purpose.

According to the New York Times, "a pandemic-related boom in telehealth has given rise to a legion of online prescribers that dispense inexpensive ketamine lozenges, tablets or nasal sprays following a brief video interview."

Off-label use of ketamine is not illegal, but some experts worry that it can lead to misuse. In 2023, the FDA issued an alert about the potential risk of patients using compounded ketamine products from telemedicine platforms to treat psychiatric disorders.

When Is Ketamine Illegal?

For decades, ketamine has been a drug that young people use at dance clubs and raves to enhance their senses and get high. Common street names for ketamine include:

  • Special K
  • K
  • Vitamin K
  • Kit Kat
  • Cat Valium, and
  • Purple.

Possession and sale of ketamine without a prescription is a crime.

Penalties for Ketamine-Related Crimes

Both the federal and state legal systems impose penalties for ketamine-related crimes. Here's an overview of these offenses and potential criminal sentences.

Illegal Possession of Ketamine

Under federal law, possessing ketamine without a valid prescription is a misdemeanor. The maximum punishment for a first offense is up to one year in jail and a minimum $1,000 fine. Repeat offenders face steeper penalties. (21 U.S.C. § 844 (2024).)

Most states also treat unlawful ketamine possession as a misdemeanor. In New York, for example, possessing a small amount of ketamine without a prescription is a misdemeanor with a penalty of up to 364 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. Possessing larger quantities is a felony.

(N.Y. Penal Law §§ 70.15, 70.70, 80.00, 80.05, 220.03, 220.06, 220.09 (2024).)

Trafficking Ketamine

Unsurprisingly, the penalties for unlawfully trafficking ketamine are much heavier than the penalties for simple possession. Trafficking includes manufacturing and distributing (selling or giving away) ketamine.

Under federal law, trafficking any amount of a Schedule III drug, including ketamine, is a felony that can get you up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $500,000. If you have a prior felony drug conviction, penalties increase to up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million. (21 U.S.C. § 841 (2024).)

Ketamine: "Date Rape" Drug

The federal government categorizes ketamine as a drug used in sexual assaults. Perpetrators use ketamine to facilitate sexual assaults because of its sedative effects and ability to impair memory. Ketamine has no taste or smell and can easily be mixed with alcohol to inhibit a victim's ability to resist a sexual assault.

Ketamine is included in the Drug-Induced Rape Prevention Act of 1996. Any person who gives ketamine to another person without that person's knowledge with the intent to commit violence (including rape) against them faces up to 20 years in prison. And any person who uses the internet to distribute ketamine knowing or having reason to believe that it will be used to facilitate rape or other criminal sexual conduct faces up to 20 years in prison. (21 U.S.C. § 841 (2024).)

Talk to a Lawyer

If you've been charged with a crime relating to ketamine or any other drug, contact a lawyer as soon as possible. An experienced criminal defense lawyer will be able to answer your questions, educate you about your rights, and walk you through your options.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use or mental health, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). SAMHSA offers 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year support and referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community organizations.

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