By John Thomason
As a boy who identified as gay at a young age while being raised by his single mother in “hyper-masculine Puerto Rico,” it wasn’t a signal event that led 38-year old Daniel (not his real name) to visit a pain specialist in 2019, but rather an accumulation of issues that began early in life. Throughout his childhood, Daniel experienced bullying so debilitating that he took to hiding from his abusers in the girls’ bathroom. He was also misdiagnosed for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and was prescribed Ritalin and Adderall, which only made him feel worse. “It was such an unusual mix that I’d find myself with a lot of energy or falling asleep in the middle of anywhere,” he recalls. “I really didn’t like the way prescription drugs affected me.”
Daniel’s misfortunes continued into adulthood. After striking up a relationship with a man he believed was “the one,” that person turned abusive, eventually breaking Daniel’s nose. A lengthy lawsuit followed, and Daniel fell into such a deep depression that he lost his job. “Since then,” he says, “it’s been incredibly difficult for me to trust anyone.”
Still, the Fort Lauderdale marketing professional was surprised three years ago when a doctor, during a routine checkup, suggested he visit a pain specialist. “I said, ‘I’m not in any pain; why would I need to see a pain specialist?’ And he said, ‘Not all pain is physical pain. You could be experiencing mental or emotional pain.’”
When he visited the pain clinic, Daniel says, “there were people who could barely walk and a lot of people in physical pain, and I felt I didn’t belong there. But I wanted to give this a shot. When I spoke with this pain specialist, she said, ‘I think you need some ketamine.’
“I knew what ketamine was. I was really surprised she said that, because I thought ketamine was illegal, and because I never thought it would be something a doctor would prescribe.”
First synthesized in 1962, ketamine is primarily used to induce anesthesia before surgeries. But it also has hallucinogenic and dissociative properties that have shown great promise in treating pain and treatment-resistant depression, and since 1999 has been a legal Schedule III medication as classified by the United States Controlled Substances Act.
At his physician’s urging, Daniel began a two-week ketamine infusion program, spending three hours a day in her office, an IV attached to his arm and his favorite music (Air and LCD Soundsystem) pulsing from AirPods, in what he describes as “a very intense ketamine trip. Afterwards, somebody would have to help pick me up. I had two nurses grab me by my arms on either side; my legs felt like they had huge cement blocks attached to them. But by the time I would return to my office I was completely of sound mind. Everyone around me began to see this incredible transformation in the way I was behaving, and the way I was responding to stressors.”
These days Daniel feels he has a handle in overcoming his past traumas and shares his experience in hopes that he might be able to help someone else . “I’ve had over 10 friends ask me about this type of treatment, and now they’ve done it themselves.”
Daniel’s story of being transformed by the use of a hallucinogenic substance certainly isn’t new. Plant-based medicines such as psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, have been used as a sacrament for indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America for hundreds of years. Psilocybin made its way into mainstream America in 1957 with the publication of R. Gordon Wasson’s influential feature in Life magazine about “mushrooms that cause strange visions.” Well into the 1960s, compounds from psilocybin to LSD (synthesized in 1938 by a Swiss chemist) were commonly used in psychotherapy to treat alcoholism, anxiety and depression. Their efficacy was so high that some people called them miracle drugs.
It wasn’t until the substances became synonymous with the counterculture that their medical progress acquiesced to a sense of moral panic. They became casualties of the War on Drugs. By the end of the 1960s, they were outlawed, and remain so. With the exception of ketamine, all psychedelic substances, from MDMA (aka Ecstasy) and DMT (a powerful hallucinogenic drug found in many plants and animals) to mescaline and peyote, are classified under Schedule I, meaning “drug is not safe to use, even under medical supervision.”
Yet many who have witnessed the curative effects of these compounds are confident that a psychedelic revolution is underway. Research institutions at Yale, New York University and the Imperial College of London have begun to study hallucinogenic medicine. In March of this year, Novamind, a mental health company focused on psychedelic medicine, entered Phase II of its clinical trial investigating psilocybin for depression, which afflicts 280 million people worldwide. Elsewhere, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has entered a Phase III clinical trial for MDMA to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
State and local legislatures are taking action as well. In 2020, through a ballot initiative, Oregon became the first state to legalize magic mushrooms. Other efforts at legalization or decriminalization are in various stages in California, Colorado and Washington. While Florida, with its conservative legislature, may seem less conducive to establishing a legal framework, local activists and clinicians supporting legalization are hopeful the tide is turning here as well.
“There’s still a large amount that’s operating in the fringes and the underground world, but it’s becoming more and more mainstream,” says Dustin Robinson, a Fort Lauderdale attorney and co-founder of Mr. Psychedelic Law and Mr. Cannabis Law, both of which advocate for the decriminalization of psychoactive substances. “We’ve had thousands of years of anecdotal stories about the power and efficacy of these medicines.”
So why, after decades of minimal progress, are psychedelics becoming increasingly acceptable? “I think money started coming into the industry to help push research forward,” Robinson says. “With the amount of money flowing in, we’re allowed to continue the research that was being done in the ‘50s and ‘60s and continue to prove the safety and efficacy of these compounds.
“It’s a long fight; it’s not going to change overnight,” he adds. “It’s not going to be one, two, three years; it’s probably going to be over the course of 10 to 15 years. Hopefully, in the future, there will be psychedelic centers where you have a menu of options for a menu of indications, all personalized depending on your particular situation.”
In the meantime, there is ketamine, whose growing list of proselytizers includes Charles Patti, brand ambassador for MY Self Wellness, which offers ketamine therapy from its office in Bonita Springs. “I suffered for over 20 years with substance abuse and alcohol issues and self-medicating; I was in and out of rehabs and on strings of different medications throughout my life,” he says. “I thought it would be a daily struggle forever. All of a sudden, these medicines came around and completely shifted that for me.
“Everything else out there is like throwing a Band-Aid on an open wound that’s losing its cohesiveness, and then you’re stuck taking these medications every day for the rest of your life with no kind of relief. When I spoke at a conference in Fort Lauderdale, a veteran came up to me after the speech and said, ‘I just got off 14 different medications through my ketamine treatments.’”
Dr. Michelle Weiner, who runs Integrated Pain Management from offices in Hollywood and Boca Raton, discovered ketamine 10 years ago as a pain remedy and has witnessed its more recent indication for treatment-resistant depression. For her patients, a vital part of the therapy happens before and after it is administered. “If someone is not prepared for a ketamine session, it can ruin the whole point of it,” she says. “Preparing basically means helping them stay calm, understanding what they’re about to feel, and having an intention. Usually the intention is, ‘What’s a belief I have about myself that I don’t want to have anymore?’ or ‘What would I rather feel instead?’
“It’s not just about taking the medicine but preparing them and helping them to integrate it into their life,” she adds. “A lot of times it’s separating them from their pain and from their depression so that they understand: I am in this body but I am not defined by my pain or depression. That’s the beauty of the dissociation.”
Weiner still remembers the time she tried ketamine herself, in a low dose in a group setting, in order to better recommend it to patients. “The answer I got from my session was that love is the answer to everything, and love is actually the medicine. As a physician, it’s weird to talk about consciousness and love, but that’s really what a lot of these people are missing in their life. We’re trying to give them a pleasant feeling, a feeling of joy, and my whole session was filled with love.”
Boca Raton entrepreneur Zappy Zapolin, who has directed two documentaries about plant medicines, calls ketamine the “gateway” into the world of psychedelics. A former Deadhead, he’s tried them all, and he’s been called a “psychedelic concierge.”
“I ask somebody, what is your intent for doing this, and what are the things you’re looking to heal? What are your traumas? And based on that, I’m going to make a recommendation based on what psychedelic, or combination of psychedelics, you should do,” he says. “If it’s feminine-related energy you need, that might be ayahuasca; if you’re lacking joy it might be micro-dosing psilocybin; if it’s addiction, maybe ibogaine; if you’re out of touch with nature, maybe that’s San Pedro cactus.”
A one-time Wall Street investor who made his fortune in domain names—he bought and sold such URLs as Beer.com and Music.com in the internet’s infancy—Zapolin today is something of a celebrity spokesman for psychedelics, having inspired public figures from Lamar Odom to Michelle Rodriguez to, as Timothy Leary once put it, “tune in.” Odom, a two-time champion while playing in the NBA for the Los Angeles Lakers, sought treatment for the unprocessed trauma of his mother’s passing when he was 12 and of the more recent death of his infant son. “He had been covering up these traumas with whatever he could get his hands on,” says Zapolin, who captures the basketballer’s healing journey in his latest documentary, Lamar Odom Reborn.
Zapolin’s language is less clinical than his colleagues in psychedelic advocacy; he calls himself a “psychonaut” and a member of the “mind army” lobbying for change. He’s also less keen on incrementalism than others in the movement.
“I’m acting as if these things are legal and available because the crisis level is so high,” he says. “Here we are in 2022; I’m not going to sit here and have somebody tell me that alcohol is good, tobacco is good, but psilocybin mushrooms are not good. [They are] a human right.
“The mind army wants to be the most radical voice in the psychedelic movement because sometimes people couch their language and say, ‘Well, it’s not for everybody, and we need to test it.’ No. Millions of people have done this. We’re in a real mental health crisis. We can’t do what cannabis did, where they cower to the state and the local and the county and the DEA. The mind army is demanding that the president of the United States write an executive order to the DEA and ask them to look at the current research, and to consider rescheduling some of these compounds based on the need.”
Throughout my conversations with South Florida’s “psychonauts,” two opinions recurred. One of them is that, despite its benefits, labeling ketamine a “miracle drug,” as some have done, is hyperbolic and unhelpful. “There’s no panacea,” Weiner says. “Every person is completely different.”
Charles Patti calls ketamine a “catalyst. As cliché as it sounds, if nothing changes, nothing changes. If I’m sitting at home and eating really unhealthy, I’m isolated and I’m not practicing any other healing modalities in my life, and I do my ketamine treatments and go right back to the same way I was living, I’m not going to have the results. That’s why we teach people about meditation, breathwork, healthy lifestyle changes, exercise, all of the things that are the real recipe for long-term success with the medicine.”
The second common opinion, even stressed by longtime journeyer Zapolin, is that these drugs are not “recreational” as we typically define the term. This doesn’t mean that “healthy normals”—to borrow a term from Michael Pollan’s 2018 best-seller on psychedelics How to Change Your Mind—can’t use them to expand their consciousness or explore other realms. Besides, as Zapolin says, “with the media and wars and pandemics, we all have PTSD right now on some level.”
Robinson, too, concedes that “even in a party situation, there can be tremendous therapeutic value if done properly with integration, awareness and intention.”
“Most of my healing didn’t happen in a facility,” Patti adds. “I came out of a DMT trip and quit a six-year heroin addiction. I wouldn’t call it recreational, but people should have access to these medicines. If I can go to the store and buy a gallon of vodka, I should be able to, in a responsible way, use psychedelics.”