It's 5:30 on a Sunday morning, but the 400-plus kids at the Fantasy Ranch dance club won't be making it to church. Instead, amid sweeping lights and the raw thumps of the aptly named song Insomnia, they sing the praises of the most recent drug to hit central Florida: Special K. "It's the bomb," gushes Tom, a sweaty 15-year-old with a struggling goatee. "It will make you like this," he says, rolling his eyes up as if staring at his brain. "It's dreamy. You see the lights, like, bend."
Tom's friend Sara quickly pulls a glass vial from her bra. After a glance around for security, she holds the black-capped vial under a pulsing light, revealing the powder she first came across in July. Now, she says, "I'm into it like every weekend." Sara is 16, and what she's into is an anesthetic sometimes administered to people but, more commonly, to cats and monkeys. Generically called ketamine, street K is most often diverted in liquid form from vets' offices or medical suppliers. Dealers dry the liquid (usually by cooking it) and grind the residue into powder. K causes hallucinations because it blocks chemical messengers in the brain that carry sensory input; the brain fills the resulting void with visions, dreams, memories, whatever. Sara says that once, after snorting several "bumps" of K, she thought other kids on the dance floor had been decapitated. "But I mean, I really knew they had heads. I was just, like, 'This is so weird.'"
And, apparently, enticing. After 25 years of underground recreational use by big-city clubgoers and New Age types (Timothy Leary was, of course, a fan), K has exploded in the past few months onto the suburban drug scene. In February, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration warned that use is increasing at teen "rave" parties, the marathon dances that have spawned a new youth subculture. Anti-drug czar Barry McCaffrey's office added K to its list of "emerging drugs" in 1995; the office's latest "pulse check" of the nation found K "all over." St. Louis, Mo., Tampa, Fla., and suburban New Jersey have seen a rash of animal-hospital break-ins by thieves hunting for ketamine.
The surest sign of K's popularity, however, is that it is seeping into pop culture: In an X-Files episode earlier this year, agent Fox Mulder had a rogue doctor dose him with ketamine in an attempt to recover memories. The Chemical Brothers, an electronic-music group, recorded a song called Lost in the K-Hole for their most recent album, which went gold last month. "K-hole" is jargon for a bad trip--too much K causes massive sensory deprivation, immobilizing and detaching a user from reality. This is not your father's groovy toke. London researcher Karl Jansen says the drug even reproduces the brain's chemical reaction to a "near-death experience."