CHICO — Ketamine was once seen by the mainstream public as only an anesthetic for humans and animals. Now after years of studies, ketamine is being used to treat depression in some cases — most recently in Chico.

The Phoenix Nest Community Project only recently opened. Operated by cardiologist and shaman, Dr. Daniel Rieders and Alexandra Kriz, a religious studies expert, the Phoenix Nest Community Project claims that ketamine is beneficial for those experiencing depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, addiction and more.

Kriz, who was sexually assaulted while in the military, struggled with PTSD for roughly a decade.

“I’m 80% disabled through the VA because of the impact of that on my life,” Kriz said. “I didn’t have a psychedelic experience until I was 35. I’m doing great now and I fully attribute it to a combination of mental health care and psychedelics.”

Although the flooring is still fresh at the center, Kriz said that the healing properties are something she’s known about for a long time.

“We’re not just sitting here getting people hyped. People are reporting back saying they’ve gotten their first night of sleep in 10 years with no nightmares,” she said. “When you go through a moment of trauma, it can kind of frazzle what’s going on, and then you’ll get the start of PTSD. Ketamine will allow you to basically create new neural pathways around that trauma.”

Ketamine is given to clients at the center through intramuscular injection. The reason behind this, Kriz said, is because compared to 25% bioavailability, or the strength a person receives the drug, intramuscular has a much higher receptive rate.

While other centers exist throughout the country, Kriz said that the Phoenix Nest Community Project differs in approach.

“We start by spending about 20 minutes beforehand having a full conversation — we pull out what your intention is, what it is you want to work on. Then we take you through an aromatherapy meditation so in case you end up getting a little too far out there, you can bring yourself back,” she said. “In the experience you have an eye mask on and we put noise-cancelling headphones on you with music that helps kind of guide you through your experience.”

As one walks through the center, psychedelic art lines the walls while each room inside has been tailored to a specific theme. The meditation room, lit by natural lighting, has a Buddha and a gong centered in the middle, while cushions border the wall’s edges.

“Every single room in here is inspired by different points in history and different actions that have marked an expansion of consciousness throughout human history,” Kriz said. “We’re trying to educate our community about psychedelics; we’re trying to educate them on different world views, and we’re trying to educate them on the expansion of consciousness. So we’re kind of cooperating on a lot of layers here.”

Although the group is confident in their work and the potential, they don’t deny that there will still be some hesitations when strangers hear the word ketamine.

“I know that people are going to need to do a little bit of research on it; I know that they’re going to be saying, ‘I don’t even know if I want to go do this because I’m terrified of psychedelic experiences.’ Our goal here is to prepare you for that,” Kriz said. “We check your blood pressure. We check your pulse ox. We do everything before we put you under and somebody is sitting with you through the entire experience.”

As for the legality of ketamine, Butte County Behavioral Health Medical Director Dr. Erik Petersen said that the legality of a ketamine center is complex.

“As far as somebody starting a ketamine clinic, if they’re appropriately evaluating and managing patients, you need a (Drug Enforcement Administration) license, you need to be able to demonstrate that you can secure medications, you need a medical license, you need insurance, you need (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) clearance, and you need approval from city government to open a clinic.”

The Phoenix Nest Community Project doesn’t advertise as a clinic. The business is registered in California as a public benefit corporation, and as per the center’s business registration, it will be working as a collaborative to help those living with PTSD and substance abuse using traditional and non-traditional treatment options.

Petersen said that in some cases ketamine has shown signs of being effective in the treatment of depression but the results aren’t permanent.

“In March 2019, they approved Esketamine (also known as Spravato), for treating clients with major depressive disorder with suicidality that have failed two adequate trials of antidepressants medications,” Petersen said. “It’s important to know that people that get on Spravato still need to be maintained on an oral anti-depressant. But the trend is pretty clear that in a subset of the clients that need help managing depression, especially the ones that present with suicidality, there’s a benefit.”

While some anti-depressants take time to take affect, Petersen said that’s where ketamine differs.

“The thing is, there’s a benefit sometimes as soon as within four hours. There’s only two medicines on the planet that have been demonstrated to reduce suicidality — Clozapine and Lithium. But those medications can take weeks to start working,” Petersen said. “There’s a client population that will benefit from legitimate qualified standard of care operation management of ketamine. The results aren’t as long standing, but sometimes if you get someone through a bump, that makes a huge difference.”

However, Petersen said extreme caution has to be taken, and patients need to be carefully monitored.

“There are definitely guidelines that really, really need to be maintained because it’s a vulnerable population and the margin of error is small. I do think it’s important, especially with a drug like ketamine, that has potential for some pretty serious side effects, you have to monitor a couple of hours. It’s important, until we know a little more, to stay within the bounds that it’s been indicated for.”

Petersen said that the potential for abuse exists. With drug classifications being from I to V, ketamine falls in directly in the middle being classified as a schedule III drug.

“The priorities of the client care, everything needs to be safe. But it is an avenue that we don’t currently readily have available. There needs to be regulation, and they need to follow the guidelines, and it can’t be used for anything.”

“There’s a group of doctors that work with ketamine and they come up with guidelines and suggestions, but some of the regulatory factors might leave room for interpretation,” Petersen said. “More guidelines undoubtedly are going to be coming fourth, but in the meantime, I think it’s important to be very cautious about how we evaluate and treat clients with ketamine. That said, there’s no doubt in my mind that there is a benefit to a certain portion of the clients that suffer from mental health disorders from using ketamine.”

Jason Shanker, 28 of Yuba City, is a former opiate addict. After 10 years of addiction, Shanker is swearing by ketamine treatments for his sobriety.

“I was doing really bad,” Shanker said. “I had no other options because there’s no treatment.”

Now Shanker is thanking the Phoenix Nest Community Project for helping him get clean, although as he admits, he wasn’t sure sobriety would stick.

“I was skeptical at first,” Shanker said.

But after waking from the treatment, he said he was overcome with a desire to be sober. “I manned up. After I woke up I just said ‘OK — let’s do it.’”

Shanker said that following his treatment, the withdrawals he had experienced in the past had shockingly disappeared.

“It’s not one of those places where they just load you up on a bunch of stuff. Before when I was (going through withdrawals) my stomach hurt, everything hurt, and it was all I could think about,” Shanker said. “Now my stomach doesn’t even hurt like it used to. It’s a miracle.”

Following his treatment, Shanker changed his phone number to avoid past drug connections. He also said the people at Phoenix Nest Community Project regularly checked in on him, making him feel like they genuinely cared about his success in staying sober.

“I don’t even think about it anymore — nothing. People don’t believe me, but I’m living proof,” he said. “And (Alexandra Kriz) still keeps up with me and checks in. My endorphins are even coming back.”

Shanker, who is of Indian origins, said that drug abuse is an issue devastating the Indian community in Yuba City. Now with his newfound sobriety, Shanker is looking at his community with the hope that he can make a difference.

“People should know, if you wanna die, you can die — it’s gonna happen. My mission now is to help the Indian community out. People are coming to me begging,” Shanker said. “My friends are dying on me. My goal is to help everyone else out.”

As the lead and only doctor at the center, Rieders, of Palo Alto, had been working in spiritual medicine for over a decade when he received a call from Kriz saying she was ready to go forward with plans for a treatment center.

After coming to an agreement, Rieders began work. Starting in July, he’ll be at the center four days a week.

“There’s a stigma against it. Ketamine is this wonderful medicine, and it’s legal. It’s used in every emergency room and hospital in the U.S. pretty much daily,” Rieders said. “It just so happens to have this effect on the mind where people sometimes have a psychedelic experience but it’s more like people looking at their thoughts and their feelings objectively.”

“I’m not against therapy, but a lot of times you learn to re-pattern your thoughts around something that you’re unhappy about, making the ruts a little deeper,” Rieders said. “We’re more like guides or midwives where we help people move forward in their lives. We want to excavate places of their minds that they’ve been unaware of or they’ve dismissed because of pain or humiliation.”

Going forward, the center has plans for expanding with vibrational sound therapy or “sound baths,” mixing sessions with ketamine treatment. It’s also planning on social events for group gatherings where people can come together and experience treatment in a group setting.

“What we’re doing is facilitating the perfect experience for you,” Kriz said. “So, imagine that you’re going out on an Apollo mission. We’re just Ground Control.”

Phoenix Nest Community Project is located at 1459 Humboldt Road Suite A, Chico, CA. They can be reached at (530) 855-0213.