"I was hoping the press would come in," Purple Lotus Bar owner Jimmy Scianno says when I call him to ask about the komodo, a tea of ground kava and kratom leaves -- which is the most popular drink at his bar.
In October, Michael and Erica Siegel sued Scianno for negligence after they say they unwittingly drank kratom in the komodo. After falling into a downward spiral of addiction, the couple is now asking for $15,000 to pay for medical and rehab bills.
But kratom, an herbal leaf from Southeast Asia, is currently legal in Florida. So we tried the drink for ourselves.
"There is a drink with kava root mixed with kratom leaf," Scianno openly admits. "Nothing is added to it; it's completely natural and has been consumed by indigenous cultures for thousands of years."
Scianno invites me to his bar to try it for myself. In 2011, a Boynton Beach man was charged with a DWI for driving while on kava. I remember this and ask Scianno if I'll be OK to return to the office after ingesting the drink. He laughs and says to come in on an empty stomach if I really want to feel the true effects of the drink. I put the Cap'n Crunch back in the pantry and make the trek to Delray Beach.
I arrive at the Purple Lotus, which is tucked behind lush shrubbery on Swinton Avenue, a little before noon on a Wednesday just as it's opening.
Scianno shakes my hand and thanks me repeatedly for coming in. He tells a tall, shaggy-haired man behind the bar to make me the komodo, and within seconds, a coconut shell of brown, bubbling tea is put in front of me along with a glass of water.
"Bula!" someone from across the bar chimes as he sees me take the first sip. (It's Fijian for cheers.)
The drink tastes like dirt, and even though I've tried kava (sans kratom) before, the physical revulsion is surprising. I try not to grimace or dry-heave. I wait for kava to numb my lips and the inside of my mouth, then down the drink as fast as I can.
"Kratom doesn't make kava taste any different," Scianno says.
"It doesn't get better, you know," Miriam Martinez tells me as she sees my eyes start to water. A regular here, she's clasping a coconut shell decked out in rhinestones and a purple M. She tells me that she's a medical professional and that she comes to the bar four to five days a week for the komodo.
"Kava is an herb, like nature's Xanax," Martinez explains. "The komodo is a pick-me-up; it's full of energy. It keeps me going."
When I ask Martinez about the lawsuit filed against the bar, she shakes her head and smiles. "It's not a real thing!" she laughs. "It's like an alcoholic suing the bar."
I head back to my car and start it. I'd left the radio on, but now it seems much louder than when I parked. I stay quiet, gripping the steering wheel at 10 and 2.
I'm on I-95, and it's raining. Drivers are doing all sorts of things with emergency blinkers and impromptu lane changes. I'm unfazed. I don't move from the far left lane. My eyes are fixed on the white Nissan Sentra in front of me.
Then my eyelids feel heavy, and I start blinking too much. I have trouble keeping my eyes focused. I'm psyching myself out, I reassure myself. I curse myself for not having the bowl of Cap'n Crunch.
Suddenly, my heart flutters and I feel awake, but my eyes still want to close. My arms start to feel heavy. They slowly sink into my lap, where they rest holding the wheel at 7 and 5.
Mentally, I'm alert, but physically, I feel heavy -- especially my arms and legs.
When I arrive back at the office, someone tells me that my face is red and that my eyes don't look right. I use my hands to tell people not to talk so loud.
Before I left, I had asked Scianno for a to-go cup of the komodo in case I didn't feel its effects after downing one, but I didn't need a second. Now, I open the lid and use a plastic knife to stir it. There's a brown powder at the bottom of the cup that I assume must be the kava (it feels like mud or wet sand). Beige leaves float on the murky drink. That must be the kratom.
I've had kava before, at Mystic Water Kava Bar in Hollywood, on an empty stomach, and it didn't feel like this. I was calm. There was no heart flutter. I had a compulsion to discuss Emerson and transcendentalism even though I'm never usually that pretentious.
The only thing similar to kava and this komodo drink is a feeling that I was speaking particularly softly.
I call Mystic Water owner Avigdor Weber and ask him explain the kava and kratom phenomenon to me and why I felt different this time. "Kava and kratom have nothing to do with each other," Weber immediately shouts into the phone. He's outraged not by the allegations of kava and kratom but by kava bar owners who mix the two.
"Kava is in the same family as black pepper; kratom comes from the same genus as coffee. They are not related!" Weber shouts.
Weber explains that kava has a "reverse tolerance": The more often you drink it, the less required to feel its effects. He speculates that kava bar owners spike their drinks with kratom to make it more addictive. "My opinion, and I'm not a doctor, is just what I've seen here at my bar," Weber explains, his tone suddenly serious. "From my understanding, kratom helps people get off of heroin, but apparently it stimulates someone the same as opium and is extremely addictive. It's disgusting. I've seen people strung out on [kratom]."
The most alarming thing, says Weber, is that people often don't realize they're ingesting kratom, and even if they do, they don't fully understand its side effects.
Weber vividly remembers a young couple coming in to his bar. They asked if the drink had kratom in it. Weber was horrified.
"There are people who have come in and they've never had true kava," Weber says, honestly upset.
"They drink at Purple Lotus, and it's spiked with kratom. The lawsuit [against Purple Lotus Kava Bar] is deserved. They're all dickheads for not telling [patrons] what they're giving them."
Michael Siegel believes that couple Weber was referring to was him and his wife. A year and a half ago, Siegel remembers the owner of Mystic Water Kava bar explaining the effects of kratom and kava.
"I remember stopping by the bar in Hollywood; it looked like a jungle," Siegel says. "There was this guy who, after we asked if he had kratom, yelled that he didn't and then gave us a 45-minute dissertation about the pitfalls of kratom use and how only kava bars that want to get people hooked use kratom."
"It's sad, because kava is beautiful," Weber says, shaking his head.
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