The drug war shifts battlefields. Today, it's kratom. And folks are already feeling the hurt.
Kratom is a natural tea that gives you a mild buzz, and many opioid addicts say it's helped wean them off drugs like heroin and fentanyl.
But the federal government says kratom is deadly, addictive and sometimes cut with more dangerous drugs, and announced Tuesday it's moving against kratom. It's seizing hundreds of shipments of kratom leaves as they arrive at American ports, and destroying them.
For Levi and Judah Love, the government's rejuvenated war on kratom hurt their business.
Last week, Denver's Department of Public Health took its cue from the feds and stopped the Love's brand new bar from selling kratom, just as it was set to open.
For four years, Levi and Judah have been selling kratom from their St. Petersburgh, Florida, shop called Mad Hatter's. Business boomed, Judah said, as they did $1.5 million in sales last year.
They decided to expand to Denver, where a kratom scene is bubbling up. They bought a building. Printed menus. Painted the walls. Then the Denver Department of Environmental Health inspector told Mad Hatter's: no kratom. "The FDA is cracking down on kratom and you're not going to be able to sell it," the Loves were told. If they sold it, they faced a court summons, the health department wrote them.
They still sell kava, a similar herbal tea. But this was a big hit to his new business. Kratom (pronounced like "atom") accounted for 80 percent of profits in Florida, Judah said.
"Our customers are really upset," Judah said. "We've sold $90,000 worth of kratom a month and no one's OD'd, no one's ever had a problem. We've had so many people get off oxycontin, and probably saved some lives."
The Loves have hired lawyers and plan to appeal.
Judah and Levi Love were once married but are now divorced, but are still partners in the business. Kratom, Judah said, made their lives better. They used to drink whiskey all day, Judah said, and their health suffered. "We used kratom and kava to stop drinking and still have a social life," Judah said. After they opened Mad Hatter's, "I went from pretty bad shape to a millionaire."
As the epic, four-decade-long war on drugs like cannabis and MDMA is cooling off, and science and personal stories convince voters and politicians to move them toward legalization, some of the hottest battles in the drug war are shifting to newer, lesser known drugs.
A year ago, the DEA made a surprise announcement that it was making kratom a schedule one drug. Kratom lovers freaked. They hoarded kratom. They closed down shops. Then, they took action; they marched on state capitols and called their congress members. It worked. In a rare drug war truce, the DEA backed off plans to outlaw it.
In the year since, kratom has operated in the gray area between legal and illegal. Shops popped up all over; fortunes were made. Kratom was seen as a band-aid for the epidemic of opioids, drugs which kill vets, orphan kids, frustrate paramedics, fund the drug cartels and turn people into assholes.
As the government pounces on kratom once again, owners of other kratom shops are terrified that their dreams are being seized, right along with their shipments.
Jeremy Haley, owner of Denver's Artisans' Apothecary, which sells kratom, said he might have to turn to domestic suppliers. He said kratom helped him stay sober while on probation.
Faith Day said the kratom world isn't perfect; some kratom sellers are unsafe. "it is dangerous that people are selling it online in sandwich bags and they’re not taking the proper precautions," she said. Committed to clean kratom, she was set to open a new shop called, well, Clean Kratom, in the Denver suburb of Lakewood just two days from now.
Eric Pieper, who said kratom weaned him off heroin, was set to start work in the shop. News of the FDA's crackdown has him worried about supply. He's also furious at federal drug regulators.
"The FDA approved OxyContin for kids," Pieper said, sounding incredulous. "Yet they are trying to make this plant illegal, a plant that has never killed anyone, and has the ability to get people off of multiple pharmaceutical drugs that do kill."
If the FDA keeps seizing shipments, Pieper said he's willing to take extreme measures, up to smuggling the drug.
"I'll go jail for this," he said. "This means the world to me. So many of my best friends are dead. I will not stop using it to get people off of the government's drugs."