"This is what $15,000 worth of kratom looks like," Michael Siegel remembers Purple Lotus Bar owner Jimmy Scianno saying as he lifted a brick of the brown powder over his head.
The bar then broke out in chatter. Some people just stared in awe. Others half-jokingly plotted ways to swipe the goods. Everyone kept sipping their murky tea of kava and kratom, their eyes peering over coconut-shell cups.
That was 18 months ago. Kratom's currently banned in Thailand, Australia, Myanmar, Malaysia, and recently Indiana and Tennessee. Kratom was legal in Florida then, and it still is now.
Some argue it weans addicts off stronger drugs like heroin, cocaine, and methadone, and others simply like the way it makes them feel. But then there's Michael Siegel, who believes that kratom ripped apart his family -- his wife, Erica Siegel, is currently at a rehab center in Boca Raton to combat her addiction to kratom, he says.
Kava is an ancient Fijian infusion made from the roots of the kava plant. A taste combination somewhere between muddy water and soap, kava -- plainly put -- doesn't taste good. Yet the people of the South Pacific hold to its sacred powers. It's supposedly mind-altering and slows the processing of dopamine. It definitely numbs the tongue on first sip.
Kratom too is from the South Pacific, but that's the only intrinsic similarity between both plants. Kratom comes from the coffee family, kava from the pepper root. Kratom is an opiate substitute and, allegedly, extremely addictive. Kava isn't. And it's kratom that is slowly becoming illegal around the nation, not kava.
There are those who swear kratom is harmless, but it was a kratom-laced kava drink that Erica Siegel had at Purple Lotus almost two years ago that allegedly provoked her addiction.
Michael and Erica Siegel are from West Palm Beach. They have been married for eight years and have a 2-year-old daughter. Five years ago, Erica battled an alcohol addiction. She eventually sobered up. Two years later, a friend of theirs, a yoga instructor at Purple Lotus Kava Bar, told the recovering alcoholic about kava.
"My wife suffers from anxiety, and she tried doing yoga and other more holistic approaches than doing pharmaceuticals to combat her anxiety. There was a discussion about kava, and my wife decided to give it a try."
Michael then explained that his wife sat at the bar, looked up on the drink board, and ordered the first thing on the menu: the komodo.
"She looked at a drink board that lists a variety of different drinks not knowing what was in them," Michael stresses. "The ingredients are not being listed; they are not being disclosed. So my wife ordered a komodo... At the time, we didn't know there was any kratom in it or what kratom even was.
"The person behind the bar said it gives you a feeling of calmness and a burst of energy and a euphoric passion. He described it in a way where, who wouldn't want to take it?"
From there, his wife started frequenting Purple Lotus one or twice a week, he claims. And then, in less than a month, it became a daily occurrence.
"When it finally came to light that there was kratom in the drink, it was too late," Michael remembers. "I don't know how much she was doing, but she was doing it on a daily basis."
At $11 a drink, the komodo had its financial toll on the Siegels. Just one shot a day is $330 a month. If you invest in the head mod (a drink with five servings of kava and kratom), that's $37 a day or $1,110 a month.
Erica then began to purchase kratom at the bar and would take it home because it was cheaper that way.
"At first, she was just buying the kratom, and she tried mixing it in Gatorade or juice, but she wasn't getting the same effect she would have when she had it with kava," Michael remembers. "There were feelings of euphoria, but it wasn't as intense."
Erica then started buying the kava blend from Purple Lotus to re-create the komodo drink at home.
A therapist she was seeing for her anxiety tried to persuade Erica to wean herself off the kratom. That's when the problems started. Erica couldn't stop.
"When she didn't have kratom, she would fall into a severe depression and would have to be bed-ridden," Michael remembers. "There were these severe withdrawal effects: achiness, shakiness, cold, clammy sweats, irritability..."
The therapist then agreed to write a letter to the Purple Lotus Bar suggesting they no longer serve Erica.
The bar agreed. But they still sold kratom to Michael, who would go home and give it to his wife.
"I don't know why I did it," Michael says. "It's because I'm what you call an enabler. I love her and I wanted to make her happy. When she didn't have it she would fall into a depression."
After finally quitting kratom, Erica began to drink again. Between mid-June to September, she wound up multiple times in the hospital for alcohol poisoning. Michael explained that their marriage struggled because he couldn't have her around their children when she was like that.
Currently, Erica Siegel is at a rehab center in Boca Raton, where she is doing much better.
Her lawyer, Gary Russo, explains she is taking Suboxone, a drug that treats opiate addiction. "They're just looking to get their medical bills covered from rehab and her prescription medication," Russo explains. "Her husband has completed his rehab, but [Erica], she had a much higher addictive nature, and she was taking a lot more kratom."
Scianno's lawyer, Elizabeth Gardner. responds: "The lawsuit is frivolous, and we are going to treat it accordingly. If kratom was an opiate, it would be regulated. It's from the same genus as a coffee."
According to Gardner, Russo sent papers demanding information about the Purple Lotus Bar's insurance policy over the summer. "They just wanted the insurance money; they wouldn't say what was wrong or if anybody was injured. It could have been that someone had fallen. It was a newspaper reporter from Channel 12 [I think] that told us about the lawsuit. Their lawyers had gone to press before he even got served."
Gardner drinks the kava-kratom concoction regularly. She explains that it helps her anxiety and gives her more energy. She drinks the komodo to treat anything from a toothache to menstrual cramps.
"They just want a quick pay down from the insurance money," Gardner says.
Michael is tired of the patrons who dismiss the addictive quality of kava. "There are people definitely addicted to kratom and are in denial," Michael warns. "They don't look at it as an addiction because they see it as something that is legal and enjoyable to them. They can still go to work and be functional, but they're definitely addicted."