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The busty clerk at Grateful J's head shop in Boca Raton holds out a small brown vial. The label reads "Lucky," and she promises the stuff packs a punch.
"You'll want to throw it to the back of your throat," she suggests. "I'd say drink the whole thing. Maybe drink half, wait a little bit, and see how you feel."
The potion is kratom, and it's taking center stage in America's next big drug scare. In recent months, MSNBC reported that kratom has sent users to the ER, the Daily called it a "hallucinogenic drug" with "potentially fatal side effects," Forbes asked if it was the next bath salts, and ABC Action News in Tampa claimed that "it can be more difficult to get off than heroin." Kratom is legal and supported by a vocal community touting its health benefits, but in the wake of bath salts and synthetic pot — drugs tied to scores of gruesome crimes this year, including (probably erroneously) the "Miami Zombie" attack — lawmakers are eager to ban the next big thing.
"It's not a safe high by any means," Frank LoVecchio, director of Phoenix's Banner Good Samaritan Poison and Drug Information Center, says. "If you take enough of it, it has opiate-like activities. It makes people high kind of the same way morphine or heroin would make them high."
But is kratom actually a youth-menacing brain-destroyer or merely another victim of Reefer Madness-like hysteria? That question has become important as the drug finds its way to South Florida and lawmakers debate whether to prohibit it. New bans, after all, cost taxpayers, prosecutors, and cops thousands of dollars and countless hours.
"Every time a new drug is criminalized, it puts more pressure on law enforcement, the courts, our jails, and it criminalizes more people," says Grant Smith, federal policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Asking law enforcement to add this to the long list of things they have to deal with... could be wasteful."
To figure out whether kratom is a dangerous threat, a medical miracle, or just a fun way to get stoned, I forked over $45 for one vial of "Lucky" liquid kratom and one packet of capsules called "Floories Exotics Jackacock" and prepared to experiment.
Before ingesting the stuff, though, I researched its background. Kratom products are made from the leaves of Mitragyna speciosa, a tree that grows in Southeast Asia. Until a few decades ago, it was used mostly in remote places such as rural Malaysia and Thailand, where locals prescribed it for pain relief, sometimes substituting it for opium.
Indeed, scientists have found that kratom leaves contain naturally occurring chemicals that stimulate opioid receptors in the brain, similar to the effects of prescription painkillers. Researchers have studied the plant's potential to alleviate a variety of ailments, from arthritis and diabetes to depression and alcoholism. In 2010, scientists from Malaysia's Center for Drug Research wrote in the International Journal on Drug Policy that kratom "merits serious scientific investigation" as a therapy for heroin withdrawal.
As word of kratom's potential benefits has spread, a worldwide kratom community has blossomed over internet messageboards. Fans talk up both its medicinal uses — including its ability to curb anxiety and reduce pain — and its recreational highs.
Take Daniel, a 23-year-old kratom enthusiast from the Tampa area who asked that his last name not be used. He first tried kratom two years ago as an alternative to pharmaceutical painkillers while suffering through painful kidney stones. Now he buys bulk orders of the crushed leaf and brews a lemon tea he drinks every day. Even though the pain from his kidney stones is long gone, he says the drink helps with depression.
"It can be mildly addictive," he concedes. "It does cause dependence when you take it daily. But it's more like coffee. I don't miss work or go out and commit crimes to get more of it."
Others, such as Kelly Lay, have switched from addictive opiates to kratom without experiencing the nasty effects of withdrawal. "Three years ago, I gave up the daily use of opiates and switched myself to kratom effortlessly, without withdrawal... I was extremely depressed while taking opiates, and I was not obtaining them legally," the 50-year-old organic farmer from Sarasota says in an email. "I have absolutely no shame in using an herb to deal with what would otherwise be a debilitating case of degenerative disc disease. I am missing two discs in my spine."
And some people use the plant purely for enjoyment. Adam, a 22-year-old personal trainer from Lake Worth who asked to use a pseudonym, says he used to abuse Roxicodone — a powerful narcotic — weed, and booze before discovering kratom.
"You get nice, pleasurable effects — physical and mental," he says. "I've pushed the limits with some very large doses, like 50 grams or something. I'd liken it to a waking dream state. My head got fuzzy, and I nodded off. But it's not a hallucinogen or deliriant."
Yet as both medical and recreational interest have picked up in recent years, law enforcement has taken notice. A few countries have already outlawed kratom, including Australia in 2003 and Denmark in 2009. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has classified it as a "drug of concern," the first step toward prohibiting it.
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.
"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.