Forty-seven years ago, the authorities went to war on a plant. It was a mistake.
This year, the FDA, the DEA and local health departments are picking a fight with a new leafy plant — kratom.
It's a tree from southeast Asia related to coffee. You brew the leaves into a tea and get a little fucked up. Think: triple espresso-level buzz. Folks say that, like coffee, it has some real health benefits.
From total obscurity, the plant has been catching on. The American Kratom Association says kratom sales equaled $750 million last year, and it's used by at least 4 million people.
The government took notice. Last week, the DEA went HAM on kratom, saying they had new data on the “potential for abuse, addiction and serious health consequences, including death.” And since early November, and continuing last week, the government has been swooping in and wrecking shop.
At Clean Wellness Center in Lakewood, Colorado, a small shop with fake plants that resembles a dentist's office, the federal Food and Drug Administration barged in last week and threatened fines of $100,000 or more for selling kratom. "I almost started crying," said Faith Day, who owns the shop.
In November, the Denver health department rolled into Kratom by Mile High Botanicals and, after brief formalities, followed the owner into the bathroom to watch him flush their kratom down the toilet. "It was crazy," said Josh Gallegos, who works at the shop. "How can you come in and take our product?"
The health department charged into Mile High Pipe and Tobacco in Denver. "They made us empty all our kratom capsules into a bucket of water with bleach in it," said Garrett Egan, who works in the store. "Pretty gestapo-like."
At international mail facilities, the FDA has detained hundreds of shipments of kratom, an FDA spokesperson said in an email.
This isn't the first missile launched against kratom. The DEA tried in late 2016 to put kratom it into schedule I, right up there with heroin. But a backlash — protests, letter, and media outreach — slowed the DEA down. Politicians, including congressional Republicans and a grip of U.S. Senators, including a bunch of Republicans, have asked the FDA to chill out. The DEA backed off. It was a rare drug war truce, a win for the "drugs" side of the drug war.
Kratom is still legal. But the truce is over.
Why? The new warnings are about safety, a emailed statement from the FDA said. The FDA cites medical literature saying kratom is associated with 44 deaths all-time.
Looking closely at the death reports, however, something's off. Almost all of the people the FDA says were killed by kratom were on multiple substances when they bit it. One kid was on kratom, prescription drugs and alcohol when he hung himself. Another dude with nine different substances in him, including kratom, fell out a window and refused treatment and died.
The irony here is, 44 deaths total is far less than deaths associated with FDA-approved prescription opioids every day — about 165.
None of this might matter — at least not any more than the decision of hardware stores to put paint behind the counter to keep kids from huffing it — except for one thing: there's an opioid crisis going on. Overdoses of those drugs are the number one thing killing young people, more than car wrecks and suicide and Tide Pods.
True, kratom's active ingredient is also an opioid, but it's a weak one. You can't overdose on it. And according to millions, it weans them off heroin by giving them some relief without getting them super fucked up. Faith Day says kratom's mild effects helped her kick a heroin habit that was killing her.
This is why kratom folks say the ban is not about science. Not about protection. Not about health.
It's about a conspiracy.
"They make so much money off the opioids. I really think the pressure on the feds is from those lobbyists for Merck and the other companies," says Margaret Steele, the lawyer representing Clean Wellness Center and Mad Hatter, another spot that was offering kratom before authorities cracked down. The government is acting as industry's heavy, muscling out kratom shops so pill mills keep rolling. "They don't want (kratom) competing with them."
Is the government in bed with big pharma? Six attempts to talk to a live person at the FDA were unsuccessful. Lindsay Meyer, spokesperson for the FDA, denied it, emailing us a statement saying there is no collusion. "Our warnings have nothing to do with competition," Meyer emailed. "FDA-approved drugs have undergone extensive review for safety and efficacy." Kratom is an "opioid that's associated with novel risks."
Kratom shops are getting around the rules — for now. As long as the shops put warnings on that read "Not for human consumption," and pretend that it's incense, they can sell it.
It's funny. You'll roll into a kratom shop and talk casually with the sales kid — which strain of kratom did you say is good for energy? Was it the red or the green strain that cured your sister's neuralgia? Which kind tastes the best as tea? — but tell him you're a reporter and suddenly he's like, "It's incense. It's not a tea. Let me put away these cups, sugar and lemon."
Tired of pretending that kratom is an aromatherapy product — a lifestyle accoutrement purchased by the kilo by a muscled, male tattoo'd former drug addicts — folks are asking that the authorities regulate the plant like marijuana.
Faith Day is one of them. "Kratom gave me my life back. I will always fight for this," she says. "I will always say, 'It's safe like coffee. Back off.'"
While anyone can still try kratom semi-legally, you should. You'll see: it's basically nothing. You can get more fucked up by breathing fast. Sometimes, if you stand up too fast from your desk, you can get a bigger rush.
Which raises the question: how do the feds choose which drugs to ban? Is it random? If it's truly about danger and effects, why don't agents try the drugs before they outlaw them, or talk to anybody who has? Or do they just feed the drugs to lab rats, and if any rodents look twitchy they dispatch the field agents?
Or are these decisions directed by Big Pharma?
Faith Day is one of many people fed up with the nonsense of another war on nature, another plant vs. police dustup.
After the FDA left her shop, Day took part of the paperwork that threatens her with a $100,000 fine and tore it in half.