The party drug of the ’90s is alive in North Scottsdale—this time as a fast-acting, and potentially life-saving, treatment for depression
By Jimmy Magahern • Photography by Adam Moreno
The first thing to know is that ketamine is not a horse tranquilizer,” says Gerald Gaines, kicking off a press conference announcing the opening of North Scottsdale’s Depression Recovery Centers, hailed as Arizona’s first clinic using the controversial drug to treat chronic depression. “That’s a line from a movie,” he adds, with a sly smile.
Gaines, a former telecommunications CEO turned millionaire alternative medicine entrepreneur, whose last venture was the attempted launch of a 5,000-square-foot medical marijuana cultivation co-op near 7th Avenue and Loop 101, could be talking about any number of films that have painted the compound, commonly used in human and veterinary medicine for general anesthesia, as a risky recreational drug. In 2008’s “In Bruges,” the Irish hitman played by Colin Farrell is shocked to hear his drug-dealing girlfriend is selling ketamine to a 4-foot-tall addict. “You can’t sell horse tranquilizers to a midget!” he exclaims.
Or maybe he’s referring to 2003’s notorious “Party Monster,” where a snuffy-nosed Seth Green introduces Macaulay Culkin to the rave party drug at the Disco Donuts. “It’s gotta be hydrochloride, a.k.a. ‘Special K,’” Green says, after taking a quick sniff of the compound, boiled down to a powdered salt. “It’s mainly used by vets as an animal tranquilizer.” And who could forget that scene from “Old School,” where Will Farrell accidentally—and awesomely—takes an actual animal tranquilizer dart in the jugular and crashes a kiddie birthday party like a lumbering bear?
Ketamine has a party rep harder to shake than Arizona State’s. It became all the rage in the ’90s, when clubbers in London and Berlin proclaimed the pale yellow substance named for the breakfast cereal “the new Ecstasy.” But even as far back as the late ’60s when it was rather erroneously nicknamed “rock mescaline,” ketamine often popped up in underground comics like “Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers,” where the comic’s hippie anti-heroes once mistook the drug for cocaine and went on a three-day bender in their VW bus chased by mythical beasts.
Gaines, who recently suspended his efforts on the medical marijuana front to launch his ketamine clinic adjacent to the Fitness by Andrew studio on Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard and Redfield Road, one of only nine such clinics in the country, insists ketamine’s bad reputation (it’s also been called a date-rape drug) has been unfairly attached to it by its abusers.
“Anesthesiologists have been using ketamine for 50 years, but they don’t know the psychiatric business,” he says. “And most psychologists are only familiar with it from having seen patients who have abused ketamine. They’re not familiar with its use for depression.”
Gaines is confident all that’s about to change. “Personally, I’m willing to bet my life savings that the discovery of ketamine for depression will win the Nobel Prize.”
He may be right. Last October, the influential academic journal “Science” proclaimed the use of ketamine in treating depression “the most important advance in the field” over the past 50 years. Yale researchers have reported that ketamine produces the same boost in positive brain circuit activity as traditional antidepressants like Prozac or Zoloft but in a much faster fashion—often within an hour—rapidly regenerating existing neurons damaged by depression rather than stimulating the birth of new ones.
For the most severe depression sufferers, those instant results can literally be life saving. “Someone who’s suicidal doesn’t want to wait a month or two to see if they’re getting the right treatment,” says Ellen Diamond, a psychologist who, along with anesthesiologist Dr. Brian Page and R.N. Kevin Nicholson, make up Gaines’ medical team. “People’s lives are at stake. People’s families are suffering.”
Tiffaney Israel-Ritchey, one of the 10 patients Gaines’ team has treated since starting clinical trials at the center last November, says she came into DRC feeling suicidal, after having tried multiple medications to treat her chronic depression with no success.
“I was severe, and my kids could see it,” says the young mother of two. “There were times I couldn’t even shower or fix my hair. And then in the middle of my first treatment, it was so weird. I could feel happiness.” Tears filling her eyes, she adds, “It saved my life.”
Timothy Little, an Army veteran who came back from tours of Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from chronic PTSD, believes ketamine could be the key to saving the 22 vets per day who commit suicide, quoting the latest figure from the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I was all wound up, and I had forgotten what it was like to feel good,” he says. “When I had my treatment, about midway through, it felt like my entire insides had unwound. For the first time in seven years, I felt normal.”
In the mix
So why haven’t we heard more about this wonder drug? How come we don’t see soothing commercials for MyKetamine during the Lifetime movie?
Part of it is simply Big Pharm business. Back in 1964, the scientist who first synthesized ketamine, Calvin Stevens, rushed a patent on it without getting the approval of his bosses at Parke-Davis. Much legal wrangling ensued until the patent was finally allowed to expire about 20 years ago. Since then, ketamine has been technically “off-patent,” meaning drug companies cannot legally advertise, promote or market it for anything other than the FDA approves it for: as an anesthetic. AstraZeneca is currently testing a ketamine mimic called AZD6765 it hopes to patent as a new substance.
The other part is that bad rep. Too many psychologists and psychiatrists know only the adverse effects of ketamine—the “dissociative anesthesia,” that feeling of being sucked into a vortex of spinning glow sticks known as the K-hole—from having treated only abusers of the substance. Gaines feels that’s like judging the benefits of drinking water from only treating the contestants in the “Hold Your Wee for a Wii” radio contest for water intoxication.
Then there’s the price. The dosage is not cheap: $750 for a single treatment, and requiring an average of 25 treatments the first year, cutting back to about half that in subsequent years. It’s cheaper on the street, of course: around $30 per gram (DRC’s treatments administer only 0.5 mg/kg of the drug in one hour). But it’s the magic mix, and the medical supervision, that DRC’s patients are paying for.
“The dosage has to be just right,” Gaines explains. “Too much or too little, and you don’t get the benefit.”
The IV treatment room at Depression Recovery Centers is as far removed from a rave club as possible: tiny, antiseptic and, for the most part, silent—although patient Little will sometimes watch what Nicholson calls “risqué” comedy videos on Netflix during his 40-minute infusion. “It’s his time—that’s how it works,” says Nicholson, who typically stays in the room with each patient to closely monitor the intravenous injection and periodically check the EKG, oxygen saturation rate and other vital readings.
“Most of the patients actually like it fairly quiet and unstimulating,” adds Gaines. “We turn the lights down and they just go into that ego-boundary-less space.”
To demonstrate, Nicholson attends to patient Jeremiah Franks, a 32-year-old man who says he was hospitalized last October for suicidal planning. Taking his seat in the reclining chair as Nicholson clamps the EKG electrode to his left index finger, Franks assures reporters there’s no discomfort to the procedure.
“When you’re to the point when you can’t get any relief from depression, this is nothing,” he says. “It’s not even an inconvenience.”
Franks, who’s suffered from depression since age 7, says he had been prescribed some 25 different medications before discovering DRC online. “When you’ve been to so many doctors, you start to be seen as a problem,” he says. “They don’t know what to do for you, so they keep throwing different meds at you. And with each new medication, the depressed person finds that ray of hope: ‘Okay, this is gonna be the one.’ When it turns out not to be the one, you’re struck down even deeper.”
Ketamine, fortunately, finally proved to be “the one” for Franks. Since his second treatment, he says he’s felt no depression. “It’s not like feeling giddy or overstimulated. It’s more like, ‘Okay! Now I can get on with life.’”
In fact, Franks— and all of Gaines’ patients, it seems—feel so good today that Nicholson has to fake the procedure, taping the IV needle to Franks’ arm but not giving him the injection. “We thought about using some ketchup to make it look more real,” he jokes.
“We wanted to do a live demo today,” Gaines adds, sharing a smile with Franks, Israel-Ritchey and Little. “But nobody’s depressed!”