Back in August, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced that it would soon become illegal to purchase or possess kratom, which is derived from the leaves of a Southeast Asian shrub and often served in drinks and teas at kava bars. As a Schedule I Controlled Substance, it would be in the same category as heroin, ecstasy, and LSD.
The response to the ban has been pretty much unanimous: This is overkill. Fifty-one members of Congress have signed a letter to the DEA asking to get it overturned. They point out there should have been a period for public comment first.
Now Michael Dombrowksi, who owns Tenaga Kava in Palm Beach Gardens, is leading a lawsuit against the DEA. He says until recently, his business relied primarily on kratom tea sales, and he'll lose all the money he invested when he opened the kava bar in 2015 after retiring from a job in law enforcement. He also claims the economic impact of the ban — both in terms of lost annual revenue and taxes and salaries that would have been paid to his employees — would be at least a million dollars.
Dombrowski declined to comment further on the lawsuit, saying that he didn't want to speak for the other kava bar owners — James Scianno of Purple Lotus Kava Bar in Boynton Beach and Keith Engelhardt and Thomas Harrison of Te Mana in West Palm Beach — who are listed as plaintiffs.
His reluctance is understandable given that kratom is often plagued with controversy. There are some kava-bar owners who are vehemently opposed to its use, and it's been the subject of lawsuits from people who claim that it's addictive or can lead to suicide. But there's also a considerable body of evidence that suggests it may help people overcome opiate addiction. And, anecdotally, other local kava-bar owners have seen their lounges become a safe space for people who are recovering from alcoholism.
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In fact, plenty of people who sell or serve kratom support some regulation — they just don't think it's necessary to make it a Schedule I drug. After all, the DEA's main argument in support of banning kratom seems to be that it contributed to 15 deaths nationwide over the past two years. Keep in mind that during that same time frame, heroin overdoses killed 108 people in Broward County alone. Is it really necessary to crack down on an obscure plant?
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a ban on kratom was already in effect. In fact, the DEA has only filed a Notice of Intent saying that it plans to ban kratom. Also, Keith Engelhardt and Thomas Harrison are the owners of Te Mana in West Palm Beach.
You can see the full lawsuit here: