The busty clerk at Grateful J's head shop in Boca Raton holds out a small brown vial. The label reads "Lucky," and she promises the stuff packs a punch.

"You'll want to throw it to the back of your throat," she suggests. "I'd say drink the whole thing. Maybe drink half, wait a little bit, and see how you feel."

The potion is kratom, and it's taking center stage in America's next big drug scare. In recent months, MSNBC reported that kratom has sent users to the ER, the Daily called it a "hallucinogenic drug" with "potentially fatal side effects," Forbes asked if it was the next bath salts, and ABC Action News in Tampa claimed that "it can be more difficult to get off than heroin." Kratom is legal and supported by a vocal community touting its health benefits, but in the wake of bath salts and synthetic pot — drugs tied to scores of gruesome crimes this year, including (probably erroneously) the "Miami Zombie" attack — lawmakers are eager to ban the next big thing.

"It's not a safe high by any means," Frank LoVecchio, director of Phoenix's Banner Good Samaritan Poison and Drug Information Center, says. "If you take enough of it, it has opiate-like activities. It makes people high kind of the same way morphine or heroin would make them high."

But is kratom actually a youth-menacing brain-destroyer or merely another victim of Reefer Madness-like hysteria? That question has become important as the drug finds its way to South Florida and lawmakers debate whether to prohibit it. New bans, after all, cost taxpayers, prosecutors, and cops thousands of dollars and countless hours.

"Every time a new drug is criminalized, it puts more pressure on law enforcement, the courts, our jails, and it criminalizes more people," says Grant Smith, federal policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Asking law enforcement to add this to the long list of things they have to deal with... could be wasteful."

To figure out whether kratom is a dangerous threat, a medical miracle, or just a fun way to get stoned, I forked over $45 for one vial of "Lucky" liquid kratom and one packet of capsules called "Floories Exotics Jackacock" and prepared to experiment.

Before ingesting the stuff, though, I researched its background. Kratom products are made from the leaves of Mitragyna speciosa, a tree that grows in Southeast Asia. Until a few decades ago, it was used mostly in remote places such as rural Malaysia and Thailand, where locals prescribed it for pain relief, sometimes substituting it for opium.

Indeed, scientists have found that kratom leaves contain naturally occurring chemicals that stimulate opioid receptors in the brain, similar to the effects of prescription painkillers. Researchers have studied the plant's potential to alleviate a variety of ailments, from arthritis and diabetes to depression and alcoholism. In 2010, scientists from Malaysia's Center for Drug Research wrote in the International Journal on Drug Policy that kratom "merits serious scientific investigation" as a therapy for heroin withdrawal.

As word of kratom's potential benefits has spread, a worldwide kratom community has blossomed over Internet message boards. Fans talk up both its medicinal uses — including its ability to curb anxiety and reduce pain — and its recreational highs.

Take Daniel, a 23-year-old kratom enthusiast from the Tampa area who asked that his last name not be used. He first tried kratom two years ago as an alternative to pharmaceutical painkillers while suffering through painful kidney stones. Now he buys bulk orders of the crushed leaf and brews a lemon tea he drinks every day. Even though the pain from his kidney stones is long gone, he says the drink helps with depression.

"It can be mildly addictive," he concedes. "It does cause dependence when you take it daily. But it's more like coffee. I don't miss work or go out and commit crimes to get more of it."

Others, such as Kelly Lay, have switched from addictive opiates to kratom without experiencing the nasty effects of withdrawal. "Three years ago I gave up the daily use of opiates and switched myself to kratom effortlessly, without withdrawal... I was extremely depressed while taking opiates, and I was not obtaining them legally," the 50-year-old organic farmer from Sarasota says in an email. "I have absolutely no shame in using an herb to deal with what would otherwise be a debilitating case of degenerative disc disease. I am missing two discs in my spine."

And some people use the plant purely for enjoyment. Adam, a 22-year-old personal trainer from Lake Worth who asked to use a pseudonym, says he used to abuse Roxicodone — a powerful narcotic — weed, and booze before discovering kratom.

"You get nice, pleasurable effects — physical and mental," he says. "I've pushed the limits with some very large doses, like 50 grams or something. I'd liken it to a waking dream state. My head got fuzzy and I nodded off. But it's not a hallucinogen or deliriant."

Yet as both medical and recreational interest have picked up in recent years, law enforcement has taken notice. A few countries have already outlawed kratom, including Australia in 2003 and Denmark in 2009. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has classified it as a "drug of concern," the first step toward eventually prohibiting it.

In Florida, Pinellas County tried to outlaw kratom earlier this year while crafting laws to ban bath salts and synthetic cannabinoids. The move stoked uproar among advocates like Lay, though, and that version of the bill was shot down.

And while news outlets are sounding the alarm and churning out scare stories, LoVecchio, the poison control expert, doesn't think we'll be seeing an onslaught of kratom catastrophes anytime soon. He points out that there hasn't been a single death linked to kratom and that people around the world use it every day without ending up in the emergency room. "It's not the kind of drug that appears to be getting people in a lot of trouble. I'm not saying that to encourage use or anything like that, and any time you buy something from a head shop, any time you buy these herbal products, you need to be very cautious," he says. "But it doesn't seem to be something like bath salts, where people are extremely agitated and extremely altered and getting themselves into lots of trouble."

The controversy over kratom is poised to break into the mainstream, as distributors have begun packaging it in shiny aluminum cases with names like "Pissed-Off Elephant" and "Slothapuss." With bong shops suddenly pitching the plant as the next great legal high and news stories sparking blowback, advocates worry legal action might be inevitable.

"Once the bath salts and all that synthetic stuff started getting banned, vendors had to move onto something new, and apparently they chose kratom," Daniel says. "They're obviously trying to give the impression that it's like a synthetic drug, which it is completely not. The packaging seems to target kids. I wouldn't be surprised with all the misinformation out there if places start banning it."

That's why even some recreational users like Adam wish head shops would stop carrying kratom. "They try to compare it to drugs or the synthetic stuff, and that makes me upset. And the head shops charge way too much for it compared to online vendors."

All of this debate darts through my mind and tickles the nerves in the pit of my stomach on a recent Friday night as I gulp the entire vial of the copper-colored tincture to try kratom for myself. It tastes like soil from a potted plant mixed with decomposing orange peels. My tongue tingles a bit, the only immediate discernible effect.

About an hour after ingesting the liquid, my muscles are relaxed and my hands feel weak, as if I'm incapable of clenching a fist. My face is warm, and a fluttery feeling passes over me when I stand up to get some water. It's enjoyable — albeit relatively boring — similar to the feeling one might get from a combination of Vicodin and Valium.

By the second hour, I laugh while thinking about the overwrought claims that this stuff is a potentially fatal hallucinogenic drug. My mental faculties are well intact, neither significantly diminished nor enhanced. A sense of ease pulses through my body. After five hours, the effects seem to be gone. I sleep well and have no hangover Saturday morning.

Throughout the weekend, I give the powdered capsules a try, just in case the powerful effects didn't come through in liquid form. I swallow a double dose and head out for a Sunday-night showing of Cloud Atlas. Though I think for a moment that I'm hallucinating, it turns out Tom Hanks really does play a multitude of roles, including a one-eyed futuristic shepherd. The most noticeable effect of the drug is that the theater's thinly padded seats don't seem nearly as uncomfortable as usual.

In the end, my own anecdotal evidence makes it easy to understand why so many people have embraced this plant, whether to treat pain, escape day-to-day anxieties, or simply get a body-tingling buzz. It's clear the effects will vary from person to person, dose to dose, and nobody should go around ingesting 50 grams of this stuff.

It's anyone's guess how long kratom will remain legal in Florida, but it seems certain this plant isn't worth the hysteria likely to follow it.

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32 comments
tin.bravo1992
tin.bravo1992

Kratom has a lot of benefits. It is primarily used as a pain reliever, as its effects mimic those of opiates. At lower doses, kratom can induce stimulation, energy boosting and many more

ainaemaet
ainaemaet

Kratom is wonderful.  I have chronic lower back pain that makes working on the computer (I am a web and graphics developer) nearly unbearable.  After trying codeine but having bad effects (stomach and respiratory issues) I found out about Kratom and have been doing it daily since.  

I make a cup of tea in the morning using a half teaspoon of Kratom powder, and I am pain-free and calm throughout most of the day.  

Big Pharma doesn't want it available because it is a much much better and healthier alternative to the harmful and dangerous drugs they provide (and cheaper). I wouldn't even be surprised to find out that some of the negative experiences you see users reporting on the net weren't propagated by the pharmaceutical industry.   

happyhank2
happyhank2

75% of the pharmaceuticals in this country should be banned before Kratom.  I've been taking Kratom for a couple weeks now and it has done wonders for my pain and depression.  It is the only thing that I have taken that has the same if not better pain-killing effects as an opioid.  It does not have any hallucinogenic effects and for me at least, does not cause euphoria.  I've been reading a lot of articles about Kratom lately, and I find it so funny how opponents of Kratom misrepresent it and have absolutely no clue what they are talking about.

wolfbytez
wolfbytez

My niece brought me some kratom when I decided it was easier to die than continue living with a hip replacement {recalled} that caused non stop pain, other hip has needed replacement for several years; pain is in my entire lower back, my implant thigh, both hips, through the groin, inside my private areas, lightening bolts shooting thru my whole body, constant aching, etc..  I tried kratom for the first time after stopping all food for 3 weeks, I am still amazed at the relief I have gotten.  I can now participate in my life cuz the pain is tolerable due to kratom tea.  It is not necessary to down huge amounts in order to get some peace and be able to sleep. 

2 TBSP's of crushed leaves make 8 cups of tea, lasts me 2 days, I drink 3/4 to 1 cup every 4- 5 hours, it does NOT ever make me high, it tastes horrible but the alternative is not acceptable.  Big Pharma drugs did this to me!  Prednisone for lupus will kill the blood supply to your hips...somehow no one ever knew until it happened to me.  I am allergic to most narcotics & nothing touches my pain unless I am knocked out completely

wolfbytez
wolfbytez

A reporter for Forbes mag wrote 2 horrible articles about kratom, more addictive than heroin, LSD comparative, etc. they both made it into the mag even tho it was just bs he read some place, he finally got to try it himself---his 3rd article was an honest assesment and he declares it easier to kick than his coffee addiction!  THAT article never got published but is on the web if you'd like to search....he did all of us a great disservice by not publishing it in Forbes.  BTW, I am an old lady, 61 and I use kratom!  The medical community {my surgeon & hospital}  is doing nothing for me, not even investigating the origin of my implant pain due to my medical insurance & I refuse to have my other hip replaced, I no longer trust any doctor to touch me at all.  Why would my surgeon and Good Samaratin Hospital give a damn since they have been busted for taking kickbacks from the implant company, a big fine paid to the government and screw the real victims.

Gliese
Gliese

Everything the news outlets said is totally 100% false. They will not publish their sources because there are none. I've taken Kratom 2-3 times a day for 2 years now. I've taken light doses and very heavy doses. It is not a hallucinogenic drug by any means and it will in no way kill you. A heavy dose made me feel dizzy and noxious and thats it. I constantly suffer from vertigo (half-deaf), so the dizziness most likely comes from the vertigo more than the kratom. It is lightly addictive and hard to stop if you take it like I do, but the w/d symptoms are gone within a few days and you don't crave it for months on end like you do when stopping opiates. I took oxycodone for a long time for kidney-related problems and my pain was never fixed (although I dont have kidney stones like I did before having surgery). Kratom may be a nuisance to the system because pharmaceuticals dont profit from Kratom...yet. Thanks to Kratom, my pain is manageable, I don't have to take strong opiates, and I don't have to spend hundreds each month to see a doctor for a pain med script. Kratom is not lethal, it is not dangerous, and it is not a plague to our society. The govt should put any and all resources they would use toward Kratom and direct that to the heroin trade. Kratom helps people in need and it also makes people happy. God forbid the public finds something natural to make us feel good. Our evil govt never wants that for us.

billskie
billskie

I totally agree. Kratom has saved me from years of addiction.  I now have a stable job, growing future, and definitely would recommend it to anyone IN addiction.  In Thailand it is illegal because it has cured heroin users. Go research it.  

Wendi-Friesen
Wendi-Friesen

Kratom did not just "come to Florida" as you are trying to suggest. It has been around for many years causing people to easily stop opiates, alcohol addiction, overcome depression and much more. You should be ashamed of yourself Chris Sweeney, for such inaccurate and shoddy reporting. Do your research and create honest and respectable stories.

thomas-morton
thomas-morton

I have been taking Kratom pretty much daily for about 7 or 8 years.  No problems here.  It is impossible to overdose on as far as I can tell given my personal use.  I once tried to see what would happen if I took a ridiculous dose.  I ingested nearly 100grams (in tea form).  Worst thing that happened was I got shakey, and nauseous.  Thats it!!!

Kratom is a wonderful, gentle herb that has helped me immensely with my depression and my shyness in social situations.

To ban this plant would be ridiculous!!!!

edgarallen
edgarallen

I don't see any real problems with kratom taken in moderation. It has similar to opiate effects but there's no over-dose potential. In fact I have heard numerous stories of people with opiate addiction using kratom as a clutch to get through the withdrawal process. I personally bought some recently through http://www.phoria.com and used it as a mild relaxant and pain killer - works better than anything else I have tried. It's not synthetic either so you can throw it in the same category as k2 incense or synthetic marijuana... Which has been proven to be extremely dangerous. If anything I would put it in the category of St. Johns Wort, which is legal herb you can buy in any grocery store. Lot's of scare tactics out there... Kratom is not bad.

bianrky
bianrky

Thank you for this balanced and fair article on this immensely helpful herb, 

nicholshugh
nicholshugh

@todddemartinis  

You speaking is wildly irresponsible, realistically speaking.

Have you ever used kratom?  Do you have any personal experience with this plant?

I was an IV heroin user for over 4 years.  I overdosed twice, and my heart stopped completely once leaving me 'dead' for a little under 10 minutes before being revived.  But one doesn't start out banging heroin, I first became addicted to opiates through painkillers given to me by a doctor.

It is my opinion that I wasn't sick enough or in enough pain to be given such powerful stuff, but docs get a cut every time they write a prescription.  So his office was where the most miserable period of my existence began.

Enter kratom.  I was able to kick my dope habit before it killed me and I haven't looked back (I have been clean for over 2 years).  I will never use a prescription painkiller again because kratom has wonderful analgesic properties and it gives me a nice buzz without having to use dangerous, addictive, or harmful substances.

Kratom, if seriously abused, can cause some withdrawal.  However, these effects are no more significant than a runny nose and mild irritability.  And honestly, you really have to TRY to get hooked on the stuff.  I would rank it as less habit-forming than coffee.

I have lost 2 of my best friends to heroin, and I fear that another one is heading swiftly down that road.  However, I have introduced a few friends of mine who were using but wanted to get clean to kratom, and they have had extremely positive results.

Please any lawmaker or person reading this, reconsider before jumping the gun on kratom.  It is astonishing that people are rushing to ban something that could be so beneficial to so many people.  Why aren't we doing something about the adderal issue?  Twelve-year-olds being given hardcore stimulants like amphetamine and dextro-amphetamine??

Now that now legislation is being enacted over the legality of weed in many states, it seems our country has begun to realize its errors.  Let's not start moving in the wrong direction again and ban something so benign.

I'm done.

todddemartinis
todddemartinis

This is such a wildly irresponsible and misleading article, journalistically speaking. Some of the other commenters nailed it, so it's good to know there are intelligent readers who are quick to point out nonsense. My question is what's behind this misleading column? Is it simply ignorance, or is there something else at play here? 

crabtree17
crabtree17

Kratom is more realistically compared to coffee than to bath salts and synthetic cannabimemetics.

Can kratom be abused?  Can coffee be abused?  10 cups of java per day may lead to certain negative side effects.  The idea that police and judges should get involved with kratom would be like having them get involved with a starbucks.  A ridiculous waste of money.

I personally prefer a cup of kratom tea to a cup of coffee.  Does it have detrimental effects?  Unless getting straight A's through Integral and multivariable calculus, physics, chemistry, and differential equations is a detrimental effect, then I would say no.  Rather, it works very well as a nootropic type study aid.  Where coffee provides edginess and anxiety, kratom provides a more relaxed energy.  I drink kratom tea with every study session, before every class, and prior to all exams.  This works very well for me.

To speak of kratom as if it were problematic is poorly executed journalism... which is almost the only thing that is seen in re to the recent publications on kratom.  The refreshing thing is that people tend to post nothing but support of this plant.  I believe we are reaching a point our history as a nation where intelligent discourse will begin to lead us to the proper policies that are most well suited to this democracy.  Before we talk about banning kratom we would do well to talk about banning refined sugars, high fructose corn syrup, cigarettes, and high capacity gun magazines.  We would even do well to talk about banning tylenol and aspirin.  To avoid talking about the real issues that actually do have a negative effect on the public health and wellbeing is irresponsible.  But then again, to talk of banning anything is largely unAmerican.  So let's be Americans for once, and practice what we preach about personal liberty and freedom.

kuntao46
kuntao46

Not one person ever died from Kratom and believe me, some nuts have tried! People have ruined their liver with Tylonol for pain, no one hurt anything with Kratom for the blahs,depression or for aches and pains. I personally can attest I used it just to get out of my funk when my mother passed, and it helped me better than all the prayers and get well cards I recieved. Good stuff.  

ericsangryhour
ericsangryhour

I personally wanted to thank you for your great article and devotion to true journalism. I read just about every news piece that comes out about Kratom, and can not remember one single piece that not only has been properly researched and reported, but goes the extra step of actually trying the product and reporting a first-hand experience. Great piece, great work, look forward to subscribing to your feed and following your work.

Palangana
Palangana topcommenter

New Times, by publishing this as your cover story you've essentially doomed Kratom.

drkratom
drkratom

I love kratom! It is awesome! It saved my life!

davion9
davion9

My dad uses Kratom for his arthritis because it was presented to him as what it is -- the leaves of a plant. His doc offered him Vicadin, Percocet - you name it--but he wouldn't go near it. Kratom has been a God send for him.  How nice it is to read an honest article about it for once.

edhoy09
edhoy09

I have been using kratom for over 5 years to treat pain from degenerative disk disease and herniated disks. Before finding this natural, unadulterated plant, Advil and Tylenol tore apart my stomach and liver, and barely worked. With Vicodin and other prescription pain killers I quickly develop a tolerance, and they stop working. I notice that the people most interested in spreading scare about kratom are usually tied to the pharmaceutical industries as advertising sales people, drug testing companies, or addiction treatment facilities. They scream"deadly hallucinogen" in the hopes that no one will notice that they are lying, and have a vested interest in keeping non-toxic natural substances that could replace their poisonous patents illegal. Do a quick search on Wikipedia and notice that kratom is non toxic, and been used for thousands of years. Banning another plant would be a waste of tax payer dollars. Prohibition only creates criminals who profit off of corruption, and big pharma who profit from corruption. Prohibition never worked for alcohol, and it doesn't work in the "war on drugs" which is actually just a war on people.I really appreciate the author of this article providing an accurate and first hand reporting of this issue.

edhoy09
edhoy09

I have been using kratom for over 5 years to treat pain from degenerative disk disease and herniated disks. Before finding this natural, unadulterated plant, Advil and Tylenol tore apart my stomach and liver, and barely worked. With Vicodin and other prescription pain killers  I quickly develop a tolerance, and they stop working. I notice that the people most interested in spreading scare about kratom are usually tied to the pharmaceutical industries as advertising sales people, drug testing companies, or addiction treatment facilities.  They scream"deadly hallucinogen" in the hopes that no one will notice that they are lying, and have a vested interest in keeping non-toxic natural substances that could replace their poisonous patents illegal.  Do a quick search on Wikipedia  and notice that kratom is non toxic, and been used for thousands of years.  Banning another plant would be a waste of tax payer dollars.  Prohibition only creates criminals who profit off of corruption, and big pharma who profit from corruption.  Prohibition never worked for alcohol, and it doesn't work in the "war on drugs" which is actually just a war on people.

I really appreciate the author of this article providing an accurate and first hand reporting of this issue.

lora42784
lora42784

I used it to get off methadone and i have to have back surgery soon and do not want to go back to dilaudid! So I'm glad to hear it helped for that! I take 3g morning and 3g at night... it helps me sleep and also helps my add ! I hope they don't outlaw it I'd rather spend my money on kratom than 1348 a month to fill my dilaudids

dickhwang
dickhwang

@wolfbytez  lol 2 table spoons = 1 dose for me. i put it in my mouth and swig water and drink hahahaha. but i did have a badddd opiate tolerance before switching over... i also redose every 3 hours with 1 table spoon till sleep time.

miamicomment
miamicomment

@Gliese  Please stop using Kratom! It can cause serious ear damage like other opiates. The dizziness in this case is a dangerous effect of the opiate on the ear. Overdose can happen especially with extracts that don't list dosage to avoid the law. Kratom overdose is dizziness, pressure in the ears, loss of balance. This can cause serious damage. What caused your deafness and vertigo? Kratom may not have as strong anti-pain effects as other opiates, but the side effects that effect the ears may actually be stronger. You don't want to have a balance disorder, tinnitus or hearing damage. Please think about your life and consider non-opiate pain medications or therapies. It isn't worth it.  Reply if you want more information.

happyhank2
happyhank2

@billskie A lot of opponents site the ban in Thailand as a reason to ban it here.  Yet, if they realized that Thailand banned it because it was diminishing the heroin trade; they might have a different opinion.  Then again, most of the people that want to ban Kratom are ignorant morons and are going to think whatever they want to think no matter what evidence you provide them.

adar_yawshab
adar_yawshab

@Wendi-Friesen  You must not have read the second page of the article. you know. the part where he talks about taking it and says its no big deal? he just started from the media hype side and slowly gravitated to our side. its just a clever writing technique, and a damn good form of non-biased journalism.

mocktrialsoftitans
mocktrialsoftitans

@edgarallen I don't see why I have to use moderation, I think it's fine in excess as well, yet another weapon in swim's war against sobriety

happyhank2
happyhank2

@todddemartinis How is this article misleading in any way?  The reporter actually experimented with the drug!  How is that ignorant at all?  To me, he is going over and beyond in attempt to get to the truth of the matter.   Also, if you want to accuse Mr. Sweeney of being misleading and irresponsible then why don't you provide some facts to back up what you say?  You sir, are a complete and utter idiot.

hhh2
hhh2

Well, I don't know but, I tried a tiny bit kratom Wednesday and now I'm researching (at 4:50 am) kratom and fluctuating blood pressure. I'll never try it again. I can see how folks might appreciate it but...

ainaemaet
ainaemaet

@miamicomment @Gliese  What in the frack are you going on about?  Quit spreading lies!  I've been taking Kratom regularly now for a couple of months to help me with lower back pain, and I quit smoking weed (which I used for the pain) because of it!  
Kratom can be dangerous if you are an idiot and you abuse it rather than use it, but in moderate doses it is perfectly safe and a godsend for many!


 
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