The controversy around kratom, a popular herbal substance of Southeast Asian origin, has been raging in Colorado ever since Denver prohibited it for human consumption in November 2017.
Now Castle Rock, a burgeoning community south of the Mile High City, is wrestling with how to handle kratom — a process that's gone on for months and includes an ongoing moratorium against approving any new business that sells it. And while a complete kratom ban appears to be unlikely at this point, potential regulations that would limit its sale to adults are definitely on the table. A draft ordinance is scheduled to be presented to the town council on May 21.
Supporters of kratom point out that it's a relative of coffee and portray it as a godsend for those seeking pain relief they'd otherwise have to address with prescription opiates. But officials at the federal level have long viewed the substance with suspicion, arguing that it's addictive and potentially lethal — although most of the deaths with which it's been associated have also involved drugs that can have fatal consequences.
In August 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration took steps to reclassify kratom as a Schedule I narcotic before reversing course the next year in the face of public backlash, epitomized by a White House petition opposing the proposal that was signed by approximately 140,000 people and a letter on the same theme from a group of 51 U.S. senators and representatives.
Among the latter collective was then-congressman, now-Governor Jared Polis.
The story doesn't end there. The Food and Drug Administration has continued to issue health warnings about kratom; the latest says significant amounts of lead and nickel were found in thirty products tested. And in late 2018, the FDA, in conjunction with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, seized 540 kilos of the product ordered by Denver-based Kratom Cafe USA. At this writing, that situation still has not been resolved.
Meanwhile, Colorado patients continue to report wildly varied experiences, with some describing kratom as a miracle that can help individuals hooked on opioids get their lives back and others saying they merely traded one debilitating habit for another. Likewise, Colorado clinics differ about whether kratom addiction is a growing or relatively minor problem in the area.
Such questions came to the fore in Castle Rock circa November 2018. According to Assistant Town Attorney Elizabeth Allen, officials "received an informal email inquiry" in regard to "a potential upscale kava and kratom bar."
In considering the possibility of allowing such an enterprise to open in Castle Rock, Allen continues, "the Town reviewed numerous materials, including publications from CDPHE [Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment], FDA, DEA and NIH [National Institutes of Health] prior to the issuance of the moratorium," which went into effect on December 18. The ordinance didn't forbid local stores already selling kratom from doing so or put additional restrictions on the purposes for which it could be used, as was the case in Denver. Instead, it simply stated that Castle Rock wouldn't accept or approve any of the permits necessary for enterprises wanting to sell kratom for a six-month period.
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Since then, the town has staged two separate events related to kratom. The first, a regulation review and advisory roundtable held in late February, included comments from Mac Haddow, senior fellow on public policy for the American Kratom Association, and Eduardo Brambila of the Kratom Trade Association, as well as assorted retailers, Douglas County coroner Jill Romann, the Tri-County Health Department's Bernadette Albanese and Castle Rock Police Department detective Scott Webster. Then, earlier this month, Castle Rock hosted an open house about kratom at which members of the public were invited to learn more about the matter.
Assistant Town Attorney Allen stresses that "the Town has not reached any conclusions" about kratom sales within city limits, but stresses that "a ban is not currently under consideration."
This point is underscored by Jason Bower, Castle Rock's mayor pro tem and District 4 council representative. "We're not looking to regulate kratom," he maintains. "We literally did a simple time-out because we had an inquiry about someone who wanted to open a kratom cafe, and we wanted to learn more about it."
Ultimately, Bower goes on, "I think the only regulation the town is looking to do is to make it eighteen and up to purchase. But we're not looking to ban it or ban cafes. We're just looking to discuss it more."