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.

One of the many brands of powdered kratom capsules available at South Florida head shops.
One of the many brands of powdered kratom capsules available at South Florida head shops.

"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."

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 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.

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 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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