Inside a boxy medical building on Coral Way, Kabir Ali, with noise-canceling headphones and a sleeping mask placed on his head, relaxes in a recliner. A nurse preps an IV and shoots him up with Special K.
For five years, the now-34-year-old Ali struggled with depression, PTSD, and a "pretty severe cocaine addiction." Then he tried ketamine.
"It was perfect for me," he says.
After four intravenous infusions of the anesthetic psychedelic at My Ketamine Road, he says, his depression has been under control and he remains abstinent from cocaine.
Though ketamine has been safely used in hospitals since the 1970s, its notoriety as a party drug has cast a stigma on the medicine. But its reputation has hardly slowed its continued clinical use. This past May, the FDA approved a ketamine-derived nasal spray to treat depression. And a new study in Nature Communications claims as little as one dose — combined with mental exercises — can lower an alcoholic's compulsion to drink.
Miami clinics are also taking notice. My Ketamine Road, which opened in May, is led by Dr. Kazi Zayn Hassan, who believes ketamine can help treat anyone, from mothers with postpartum depression to terminal patients with anxiety about death. The clinic also offers pro bono treatment to veterans and survivors of the 2018 Parkland shooting.
"It's helping people connect with the stories, ideas, and traumas that are holding them back in their lives," Hassan says. "People can have spiritual or deeply meaningful experiences that are actually hard to describe but are powerful agents for change."
Ketamine is different from typical antidepressants and psychedelics, which affect serotonin levels. Instead, it works on the glutamate system, causing dissociative effects that induce a feeling described as an out-of-body experience.
"It's a novel way of treating depression," says Dr. Sajid Lopez, a psychiatrist with Mental Health Services of Florida in South Miami. "For the last 20 years, we've been using the same types of medications, so it was very exciting for anybody in our field to finally get something new."
A therapeutic ketamine infusion takes place in a monitored setting. Patients are screened to determine if ketamine will work for their condition. If they're cleared, they undergo guided meditation before being led to a comfortable bed or recliner where they are connected to an IV.
Then they receive a controlled release of ketamine. It takes full effect within ten minutes of being administered and stops within ten minutes of being removed. The patient is free to go about their day after the session.
The recovery period involves a psychologist, counselor, or life coach. All experts who advocate ketamine therapy recommend professional support to improve the treatment’s success.
Hassan and Lopez say they're aware of the potential for abuse and the irony of using ketamine to treat addiction. They point to the screening as a way of eliminating people illicitly seeking narcotics.
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"Look, if you have a substance abuser, they're not going to be spending $500 on IV ketamine," Lopez says.
This evolution in psychological treatment is what some proponents call the "psychedelic renaissance." Cities such as Denver and Oakland have officially decriminalized several popular psychedelics, including psilocybin mushrooms and mescaline, while Chicago, Portland, Dallas, and all of California are trying to do the same.
Professionals recommend six ketamine sessions, but Ali says four was enough for him. He continues regular therapy but credits ketamine as a catalyst for improving his mental health and maintaining sobriety.
"It creates a shift in perspective that's very beautiful and obviously has the ability to change lives," Ali says.