Ketamine, developed in 1962, as CI-581, was first synthesized by Parke-Davis scientist Calvin Stevens. Pharmacological investigations in human subjects began in 1964 and it was initially promoted as a fast acting general anaesthetic. A few years later, in 1970, it was used as a battlefield anaesthetic, as it has less effect on depressing the respiratory system than opioids.

The first evidence of illicit use of the drug was on the West Coast of America. Later, during the late 1970s and early 1980s abuse began to increase across the country, especially among certain sub-cultures (e.g. ‘psychonauts’ and ‘New Age’ spiritualists). It was used in psychiatric and other academic research through the 1970s, culminating in 1978 with the publishing of the neuroscientist and psychoanalyst John Lilly's ‘The Scientist’ and Marcia Moore, who died of hypothermia in the woods behind her house after a large dose of IV ketamine. Around the same time, ketamine became widely available in a range of formulations including capsules, powder, crystals, tablets, ampoules and solutions.

Starting in the mid-1980s ketamine was beginning to be linked to ‘rave’ culture, partially as an experience in itself and also as a come-down, ‘chill-out’ antidote to the psycho-stimulants and hallucinogens popular in the culture.

Today, there are still valid medicinal uses of ketamine for anaesthetic reasons, though its use is uncommon and tightly restricted. The most common access to ketamine for users has been to obtain it is through diversion from pharmaceutical suppliers of legal chemicals or theft from veterinary clinics or purchased from the East, often India, where less stringent controls have been in place in the pharmaceutical industry until quite recently. Ketamine has, over the past few years, been thought of as a ‘club drug’ (this term is used for a number of illicit drugs, primarily synthetics, that are most commonly encountered at parties, clubs and ‘raves’). In the ‘MixMag’ surveys of recent years ketamine has held a place high on the list of clubbers’ most frequently used drugs. This is not to say ketamine is not still popular with ‘psychonauts’ (‘a person who explores, experiences, and studies their subconscious and subjective reality through the use of a range drugs’), as it certainly is.