COVID-19: Colorado Kratom Shop's Shut-and-Open Case

A bowl of kratom.
A bowl of kratom. YouTube file photo
Even after Colorado's April 16 stay-at-home order over COVID-19 is lifted, many businesses in the state will remain closed, Governor Jared Polis reported during an April 20 news conference, including bars, clubs and restaurants outside of to-go and delivery service. But Clean Kratom Wellness Center, at 1520 Simms Street in Lakewood, will be open — even though it received a notification last week that it would have to shut its doors.

Clean Kratom owner Faith Day vowed to fight this edict, and within days, the notice from Jefferson County Public Health was rescinded — but not because the sale of kratom, a controversial herbal substance of Southeast Asian origin, was deemed essential. Instead, the center was allowed to continue operating because it also sells CBD products that Jeffco considers food.

There's no shortage of irony over this determination. After all, the Clean Kratom Wellness Center branch in Portland, Oregon, has been licensed to package and sell kratom by the Oregon Department of Agriculture — a designation that Day believes is the first of its kind in the United States. And that agency, unlike its equivalent in Colorado, treats kratom like food.

The federal government displays even more antipathy toward kratom, regularly issuing warnings about the product's alleged addictive qualities even as advocates tout it as both a pain reliever and a tool to help opioid users kick infinitely more dangerous habits. Indeed, the Food and Drug Administration specifically targeted Day's business in early 2018, during a campaign that included the seizure of a kratom shipment to a Denver company the next year.

Even before this conflict, Day was careful to follow all regulations for packaging and distribution of kratom — and she stresses how much closing the store would hurt her customers. "Our sales haven't slowed down at all" since the stay-at-home order, she says. "There's a huge demand for this product."

One possible reason: Kratom is among the many items being touted for its alleged ability to stave off COVID-19. While Day makes no such claims about kratom, she reveals that "we've got people coming to us who are visibly sick. It's very hard for us to just turn away people who are in dire need."

And she won't have to do so now. Corresponding via email, Nicole Work, a spokesperson for Jefferson County Public Health, writes that the Colorado Department of Public Health "has declared CBD to be food and recommended the reopening of businesses selling it. Clean Kratom was one of them, and they have been approved to reopen."

Even so, Work notes that the Clean Kratom Wellness Center is "not licensed with JCPH. The FDA does not recognize kratom as food, so we do not allow it any of our retail food establishments." The takeaway: Kratom in and of itself won't allow a business to stay open, but neither will it automatically result in it being prevented from doing so if it sells other essential items.

Day, who holds a standard retail license for Clean Kratom, finds Jeffco's rationale confusing. "We were told that the few CBD items we have for sale were the determining factors for us remaining open," she allows. "I'm definitely not upset about it, but I'm hoping that the viewpoint on kratom changes."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts