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Was ketamine the cause of Matthew Perry’s death?

By Prof David Nutt

The death of Matthew Perry from a combination of ketamine and drowning is a sad loss of an exceptional talent. Understandably his fans and the public at large are looking to see how it might have been avoided. Some are blaming ketamine and resurrecting calls for more severe controls on its recreational use.

We do know that he was receiving treatment with ketamine and that the amount found in his body was not from this medical treatment, so we suppose he took it from illicit sources.  

Ketamine is a valuable new treatment for several of the mental illnesses that Matthew Perry suffered from – particularly treatment-resistant depression for which it is licensed in both the USA, UK and Europe and is gaining a powerful and growing evidence base – e.g. ‘Esketamine Nasal Spray versus Quetiapine for Treatment-Resistant Depression.

There are now several studies showing it to have efficacy in some addictions, particularly the alcohol dependence which blighted Perry’s life e.g. ‘Adjunctive Ketamine With Relapse Prevention–Based Psychological Therapy in the Treatment of Alcohol Use Disorder.

When used in clinical settings, ketamine is very safe – even when used as an anaesthetic; so safe that it does not require intubation (the inserting of a tube through a patient’s mouth or nose, then down into their windpipe). This is why it is so widely used in the developing world and hence is included in the WHO Essential Medicines list.

We may never know the full circumstances of Perry’s death, but it is not the first example of ketamine intoxication leading to accidental drowning – e.g. The Guardian reported in 2011 on the tragic loss of  21-year-old Louise Cattell.

The best way to minimise deaths from ketamine is to educate users about the risks of using it in baths and pools and to encourage people never to be alone when using it.

Drug Science will be hosting a free ‘Deep Dive into Ketamine’ webinar on 12th January 2024 with some of the UK’s leading experts on this drug. Register for your place here.

Find our drug information page on Ketamine here, which includes harm reduction advice and recommendations on long-term use and other drug interactions.

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