Zen Root Kava doesn’t look like a drug den. Located next to a hair salon in a strip mall off Federal Highway in Pompano Beach, it has Buddha paintings on the walls and a Himalayan salt lamp on the bar. Reggae music plays softly in the background. There are pita chips for sale.
But Zen Root serves kratom, which will be considered a Schedule I Controlled Substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration as of October 1. That puts it in the same category as heroin, ecstasy, and LSD, at least as far as the law is concerned.
“No one saw this coming,” Richard Kennedy tells me as he adds several pumps of Torani raspberry syrup to my kratom to mask the earthy taste of the drink. “We were all gearing up for local fights here in Florida.”
Kennedy, a bearded man dressed in a Led Zeppelin T-shirt, owns part of Zen Root Kava and Awa Na Kava in Fort Lauderdale. Both are among a handful of South Florida lounges that serve kratom, which is derived from the leaves of a Southeast Asian shrub and was perfectly legal until this past Tuesday, when the DEA suddenly announced that it wasn’t anymore.
“That’s what’s crazy — it went from zero laws to Schedule I,” Kennedy says. “It just seems a little uncalled for, given that you really don’t have an epidemic.”
In its press release, the DEA noted that kratom contributed to 15 deaths nationwide over the past two years. During that same time frame, heroin overdoses killed 108 people in Broward County alone. It doesn’t seem entirely logical to place them in the same category.
Of course, kratom use can have consequences: In 2013, Michael and Erica Siegel, a West Palm Beach couple, sued Purple Lotus Kava Bar, saying they became addicted to a drink known as “komodo” that combines kratom and kava. They asked for $15,000 to cover their medical and rehab bills. They later withdrew the lawsuit. Then, in 2014, Palm Beach County briefly considered banning kratom after a 20-year-old Boynton Beach man who may have been addicted to the substance jumped to his death from an I-95 overpass.
With that in mind, I was slightly nervous to try kratom for the first time. But it turned out not to be a big deal. I left Zen Root slightly happier and more relaxed, but the effect was less noticeable than if I’d had, say, a glass of wine. Driving home, I was alert and focused but also unbothered by the traffic around me. I even found myself smiling, which is not something I usually do during rush hour.
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Studies have shown that kratom may help people overcome addictions to heroin and other opiates, which has contributed to its popularity. Kennedy estimates that roughly a third of his customers are in recovery for alcohol or drug abuse and come to the lounge because it’s one of the few places where they can socialize late at night without being around alcohol.
All that might be coming to an end. He worries that once he isn’t able to sell kratom, which currently accounts for around 35% of his revenue, the lounge will be forced to close.
“It’s gonna hurt us,” he says. “I’m really hoping to stay afloat. This place could go under because of that.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Purple Lotus settled a lawsuit with Michael and Erica Siegel. The Siegels chose to withdraw their lawsuit.