Why everyone's dying to get their hands on legal drug kratom tea before the month ends
On the second floor of a plain office building in the Baker neighborhood of Denver is a little joint called Rocky Mountain Kratom. There, a very controversial plant is being sold.
There are no signs and no advertising; you have to call ahead and have an employee come down to the first floor and escort you in. The shop looks just like a marijuana dispensary, with a Japanese dividing screen to separate buyers from the plant, two low black couches, and a TV.
There’s a big photo of the Southeast Asian tree that makes kratom, a leaf which has mild opioid-like effects, but isn’t an opioid. Some say kratom helps opiate users kick their addictions — although others say it’s addictive and dangerous in itself.
Normally, the shop is chill. But Thursday evening, the normal trickle of customers was a flood. Employees were so swamped they couldn’t answer the phones. Customers lined up by the dozen and figeted their feet and swayed nervously. The world of kratom had quickly turned upside down, but some regular customers were just hearing a piece of news sprung the day before. One customer, told by the clerk that he DEA is trying to make kratom a schedule I substance, just like heroin and LSD, was stunned.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” said the customer. “Fuck. God damn,” he continued, then paused for a second. “I'm going to do 100 pounds then.”
All over the country, kratom suppliers are being slammed. In one month, kratom is likely to be available only in the dark corners of the black market. Why the ban? The DEA claims that kratom has no medical use, is highly addictive, and represents an “imminent hazard to public safety” so severe that they aren’t even taking comments from the public about the ban.
They say there were 660 calls to U.S. poison control centers between 2010 and 2015 for kratom; that might sound like a lot, but for perspective, Forbes points out that Poison Control centers received 6,843 reports of young children ingesting single-load laundry pods in just the first seven months of 2016.
What to make of such conflicting reports? Outside Rocky Mountain Kratom, I interviewed a few users about why they use the plant. Made suddenly skittish by the DEA action, none would give their full names. Cherish, a woman with curly brown hair in her mid 40s, moving slow, said, "It helps me with my pain. Lower back pain. Sciatica.”
Another man, wearing military fatigues, says it helps his pain, too, from an injury. “It's like taking an opiate, as far as pain,” he says. And it’s good because it doesn’t show up on drug tests. “But it's not euphoric.”
The “non-euphoric” part rings true to this reporter. Kava Sutra on Colfax used to sell kratom — though it’s not on the menu anymore. My friends and I tried it one Saturday night. After drinking a small bottle of kratom, along with a few bowls of kava, another plant medicine, our mental state changed just slightly: the lights got a little fuzzy, the music a little more textured. But it wasn’t much — three beers would’ve done more. And the hangover was bad. We couldn’t sleep, and woke feeling like we’d been in a plane that crashed into a hammer factory. No one ever wanted to do it again.
Another friend, who said he’d done kratom 15 times and didn’t want his name used, described it as “dirty hydrocodone.”
“If you take too much, you just get a headache,” he said. “It’s not like you go fucking crazy and start biting people.”
Others, however, say they’ve seen its harm.
Jim Twitty is a Florida man I found on the Facebook page “Boycott Kavasutra.”
“kratom is a shitty half-assed pseudo opiate with no redeeming value or use. They market kratom as safe to these jerkoff hipster wannabes, then they can’t stop using it,” Twitty messaged me. “It should be scheduled whatever cocaine is scheduled, in my opinion.”
Cocaine, notably, is Schedule II, and therefore more legal than kratom will be.
Florida nurse Linda Mautner told me her son Ian was an honor student and scholarship winner before getting hooked on kratom as a college freshman. She says Ian went to the kava bar every night, got physically ill without ingesting it daily, was in and out of rehab, quit and relapsed over and over, all the while stealing from his family to keep up his habit of $125 worth of kratom gold. After his grandmother confronted him about the thefts, Linda said, he drove to the top of an overpass and dove off.
“We loved our son dearly,” she emailed me. “He took his life because all of his dreams had been shattered, and he was in shame and remorse from hurting his family to support his craving and active disease.”
The DEA says it will do research and re-consider its ban in the next couple years.
In the meantime, kratom fans are planning a protest for Sept 13, petitions are being signed, and kratom shops like Rocky Mountain Kratom are in disarray. “We’re trying to figure out what the future holds for us,” said a manager, who gave his name only as Jose.
For the next month, until they close, they’re limiting sales to one pound per customer. Inside the shop, the crowd complains. They want more.
“We had to,” the manager says, hurriedly. “At least we didn't raise the prices. We could've.”
Suddenly, this place is the equivalent of a speakeasy, a drug den. As word spreads that I’m a reporter, the employees stop answering questions at all, and suddenly swear to me that the kratom isn’t for human consumption — which is a common linguistic trick sellers of controversial herbs use to try and get around drug laws. "It's an aromatherapy product," the employees say, before threatening to call security and kicking me off the premises.
Cherish, standing outside the shop, looked hopeless.
“The doctors sent me to physical therapy, but it doesn't help,” Cherish told me. “They give me Ibuprofen and Tylenol. It's not enough. And I can't smoke weed for my job. What am I supposed to do?”
As kratom opponents cheer the DEA’s action, placing yet another plant on its list of forbidden substances, the only option for patients like Cherish, now, is to stock up. Expect prices to skyrocket and runs to continue through the end of the month and beyond, as another front opens up in the good old fashioned war on drugs.