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1960’s Ketamine Prisoner Study Highlights What Has Been Known for Decades

ketamine prisoner study
Written by Sarah Friedman

Let’s be honest, when it comes to some of the shadiest, unethical studies, they tend to be run by the government. Whether we’re looking at THCO-A testing, or syphilis, it always seems to be the government operating undercover, and then apologizing and making excuses when caught. Now, as ketamine becomes bigger and bigger in a gray market, the ketamine prisoner study from the 1960’s begs the question of why we were never told how useful this drug is, and why we’re still using more dangerous drugs instead if it.

The ketamine prisoner study of the 60’s is a glaring example of US government apathy towards its people, as well as a great showing of how little the government likes to use the information it collects. This brings up the question of why we ever started using opioids when there were better options available. We’re dedicated to providing the most relevant and important stories in this new and blooming industry of psychedelics! Sign up for the Psychedelics Weekly Newsletterfor more articles like this, and to keep your finger on the pulse of the psychedelic world.

What is ketamine

Ketamine is a Schedule III compound in the DEA’s Controlled Substances list, with approval for use as an anesthetic in humans and animals. This makes it unlike nearly every other psychedelic compound, which all (with the exception of DXM) reside in Schedule I. Having said that, the US’s FDA did legalize ketamine’s close cousin ‘esketamine’ in 2019, but only for treatment resistant depression (updated to include suicidal thoughts the following year), and only with use of a monoamine antidepressant at the same time.

Ketamine was discovered by the pharmaceutical company Parke-Davis in 1962, which was on the hunt for a strong anesthetic. Ketamine is considered a ‘dissociative anesthetic’ because it makes users feel like different parts of their brain are disconnecting from each other, described as “electrophysiological and functional dissociation between thalamocortical and limbic systems.” The term came about because using the word ‘psychedelic’ was frowned on. While the compound showed the ability to sedate, it didn’t actually show hypnotic properties – which means the ability to put people to sleep (though it obviously can knock them out). Both ketamine and cousin esketamine share the chemical formula of C13H16ClNO.

Though ketamine has not been officially cleared for anything but use as an anesthetic, because it is Schedule III, it can be prescribed ‘off-label’. This means a doctor can prescribe it for a different purpose than what it’s approved for. Because of this, a ketamine therapy gray market has opened up, and has been growing wildly in the last few years, likely being the reason for the very quiet legalization of esketamine, to try to battle this unregulated – but not illegal – industry.


Ketamine has been shown to be beneficial for psychological issues like depression, anxiety, PTSD, postpartum depression, and eating disorders. It’s also been shown to be useful for pain management, begging the question of why it is not immediately being switched out for the opioids which are causing deaths left and right. Aside from use in medicine, ketamine has also enjoyed popularity in the club scene since the 80’s, and is a popular recreational drug in general.

Ketamine prisoner study

We always expect that new drugs will go through human trials. It’s a part of testing a drug for mass use. In order to get a pass, it must go through different rounds of testing for efficacy and safety, and this means people being guinea pigs. This usually requires volunteers, since people have rights, and trying out possibly dangerous medications on unsuspecting citizens has always been illegal in the modern day of this country.

Which is probably why when the government conducts covert experiments on people, it tries to keep them as quiet as possible, whether to cover up people getting hurt, or to preserve information from becoming used – for whatever reason. Such is the case with the ketamine prisoner study from the 1960’s, which took place via Parke Davis’s Clinical Research Unit at the Jackson Prison in the State of Michigan.

In fact, the internet has been so well scrubbed, that the only in-depth account comes from the very researcher responsible for breaking ethics codes, who, of course, calls it a volunteer study. Even back in post-war times, when questions of medical ethics were more in flux, and patients were in the mindset of simply following doctor orders, it was still illegal to use people unwittingly in medical research. Doctors, for their part, used methods of coercion to get patients to comply, since in their minds, in the end, it was all for the patient’s own good. Getting research participants followed a similar model.

Though detractors to the experimentation do admit that some amount of consent was given, the idea of ‘informed consent’ as in, consent to the specifics of what was being tested for, was not a part of it. It should be mentioned, much more dangerous drugs than ketamine are tested, but at the time this happened, there was absolutely no accumulated knowledge pointing to whether it was dangerous or not. Which means ketamine was a blank slate, and no one knew what would happen to study participants. Lead researcher Dr. Edward Domino even went as far as to pat himself on the back for going behind the back of the study’s psychiatric advisor, for fear the guy would assign the drug as ‘schizophrenomimetic’, which would stop research and production. The research began in August 1964

Anyway, regardless of the antics used to do the study, here is some of what was found:

  • At higher doses ketamine knocked out prisoners, but at lower doses it had psychoactive effects on patients that remained lucid.
  • Test subjects spoke of feeling like they were floating in the air, or a loss of sensation of their arms and legs.
  • About one out of three subjects showed side effects to the ketamine.
government research
  • There was only a low level of ‘frank emergence delirium’ or delirium associated with coming out from under anesthesia.
  • Even at anesthetic doses, participants retained normal blood pressure, respiration, and general vitals.
  • Ketamine showed to be extremely safe, with low ability for overdose death.
  • Ketamine showed to be an effective analgesic in doses of one to two mg/kg (even being used in the battlefields of Vietnam after this).
  • Ketamine was found to have psychotropic effects, defined in the study this way: “Others showed marked alteration in mood and affect, some becoming apprehensive and aggressive and others markedly withdrawn.”

While this study marked the first understanding that ketamine causes a psychotropic reaction, and even though more studies to confirm this came later, it was never approved for anything psychiatric until 2019! Even with the growing opioid epidemic, it still isn’t being talked about for taking over the pain management industry. What should be understood however, is that it was established as a well-working analgesic, without a real death count, in that very first 1964 study. Why opioids ever came out considering this, is extremely questionable on the part of the US government.

When else has the government done things like this?

Ketamine turned out to be a pretty useful drug, but not everything the government does is for non-dangerous drugs, or useful purposes. And, in fact, its not that surprising that this was gotten away with considering that from 1949-1974, the US government, via the military, ran the Edgewood Arsenal Human Experiments, for which the cannabis compound THC-O-A was tested, along with much more dangerous compounds like tear gas, sarin gas, and the deadly BZ.

Once again, these were called volunteer experiments. Just like in the ketamine prisoner study, which used prisoners (not a population whose rights are taken into account), the military was just as bad. With threats of Vietnam or jail time, study investigators were sure able to make a lot of soldiers ‘volunteer’. These experiments showed their awfulness in the fact that they were so abruptly shut down in 1975 when word about them reached the press, with lead researcher Dr. Van Murray Sim called before Congress. Of course, in standard military fashion, the military did the investigation, which, not shockingly, turned up no abuses, despite the very obvious abuses that were carried out.

And to give just one more idea of how little the government cares about carrying out dangerous experiments on its citizens, remember that the Tuskegee study went on for 40 years between 1932 and 1972, carried out by the U.S. Public Health Service. In this abomination of a study, black men were purposely studied for their syphilis without their knowledge, and then monitored for years, told lies to obtain new blood samples, and allowed to die without intervention. In fact, these men were told they were being treated for ‘bad blood’, with no informed consent given for anything.

Tuskegee study

To give an idea of just how ridiculous and heartless this was, by the time the study was pulled, only 74 of an original 399 men were still living. Not only did 28 die from syphilis (despite treatments being available), but 100 died of complications from syphilis (which means they died of syphilis), 40 wives had been infected, and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis. And the US government didn’t care a lick about it until the case was in the spotlight and it had to respond.


There is one major takeaway from the ketamine prisoner study. Yes, the government allowed a really awful study to take place to the detriment of prisoner health and rights. And then it DIDN’T EVEN USE THE DATA IT COLLECTED!!! Over 55 years ago it was learned that ketamine can effectively treat pain, yet here we are with a massive opioid epidemic. Over 55 years ago it was learned that ketamine could cause psychotropic effects, with confirming studies done in the years after showing how well it worked for all kinds of things from depression to eating disorders. Yet all we have now is a monoamine antidepressant market that doesn’t work.

It has been well understood for quite some time that ketamine can be an answer to both the opioid epidemic, as well as the depression epidemic going on, yet here we are in 2022, and most people don’t know that any of this happened at all. Thank god our government cares about us!!!

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Hi, I’m a researcher and writer. I’m not a doctor, lawyer, or businessperson. All information in my articles is sourced and referenced, and all opinions stated are mine. I am not giving anyone advice, and though I am more than happy to discuss topics, should someone have a further question or concern, they should seek guidance from a relevant professional.

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About the author

Sarah Friedman

I look stuff up and and write stuff down, in order to make sense of the world around. And I travel a lot too.