Kratom shops back in business through a rare Drug War truce

Kratom shops back in business through a rare Drug War truce

VicesOctober 18, 2016 By Reilly Capps

It's not exactly Europe 1945 or Saigon 1975, but in the last few years, there have been a few compromises — rapprochements, detentes —  in the devastating War on Drugs. 

It's rare, but it happens. Take recent news surrounding something called kratom. The DEA — the government’s Drug War army — laid down its weapons and backed off plans to outlaw it.

“It was definitely a victory,” Jeremy Haley, owner of Denver’s Rocky Mountain Kratom, one of the only kratom storefronts in the country, told me. “We’ve had so much struggle, sleepless nights, working two three nights without sleep. But it paid off.”

As he writes on his Facebook page: “We left a dent in the world.”

Kratom (pronounced like 'atom') is a plant. Nature made it. When you put it in your body, it gives you a mild buzz. The one time I drank it, at Kava Sutra on Colfax, the lights got a little fuzzy and I felt a little happy — but it wasn’t any more intense than smoking a cigarette for the first time, and much less intense than smoking marijuana. 

That’s why I was so shocked when I heard, in late August, that the DEA planned to make it a Schedule I substance — thereby making it as illegal as heroin and more illegal than meth. The DEA claims kratom is an imminent health threat, and was causing too many deaths. This isn’t really true.

Yes, 15 people who used kratom died between 2014 and 2016, but 14 of those were also using other drugs. Meanwhile, about 20,000 people die from prescription pain pills every year, and god knows how many die from alcohol and fatty foods and boredom and lack of purpose. Yet, the DEA holds its position that kratom is so dangerous it has to be scheduled immediately, without taking public comment.

Until now. People have until December 1 to deliver their case against the ban. Public outcry, letters to representatives and good old fashioned protests have actually paid off.

To those who love kratom, the move by the DEA was blasphemy. For them, it’s a life saver. Many say it’s helped with depression, alcoholism and addiction to opioids. “Kratom, it really helped me to stay clean during probation” for a DUI, Haley admits. “And I've never really had the desire to go back to drinking.”

When the DEA announced its plans to schedule kratom, the Department of Environmental Health in Denver shut down Rocky Mountain Kratom. Haley was one of thousands of people outraged by these moves. With others’ help, he organized a march on the state capitol. He wrote his congressman. He organized with the American Kratom Association to file a lawsuit. There was an estimated 2,000 calls made to the DEA. Rocky Mountain Kratom customers phoned the branch of the Denver government that shut down the store and offered their stories of how kratom helped them and many others like them.

Here is a crucial lesson from this story. The government — even the ones that regulate drugs — is not full of robots or Nazis ... or Nazi robots, as many assume. It’s filled with regular people with hearts and brains who really listened to the public. Even congress listened. Fifty-one representatives wrote a letter to the DEA asking them to reconsider the ban. 

And the DEA changed tack. It now says it will accept public comment until the beginning of December and also asked the Food and Drug Administration to expedite research.

The DEA could still make kratom more illegal than meth, but Haley is hopeful. Now that he can sell kratom again, he’s moving forward with plans to expand into a bigger space at Broadway and Alameda in Denver.

“Right now, everything is falling into place,” he says.

When it comes to the War on Drugs, governments do listen. And users can win. 

“A lot of people get disenfranchised, they think that both sides are the same,” he says, “but it goes to show what can happen if we can really get each other passionate and find a reason to get interested in certain issues.” 

He hopes to have his new shop, called Artisans Apothecary, up and running on October 24. And you can stop by and give kratom a try, and use the tea for a toast to a rare Drug War truce.