Kratom, a popular herb of Southeast Asian origin, is prohibited for human consumption in Denver and has been the subject of numerous health warnings from the federal Food and Drug Administration, which recently seized 540 kilos of the substance from a local company called Kratom Cafe USA in conjunction with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.
But debate between opponents and advocates continues to rage, with the former depicting the product as dangerously addictive (kratom-related calls to the Rocky Mountain Poison Control Center are said to have doubled in recent years) and the latter portraying it as a miracle capable of helping those dependent on heroin and other opiates kick much more dangerous habits.
The gulf between these viewpoints is epitomized by the stories told by two parents who live along Colorado's urban corridor. The first says his son became hooked on kratom after using it as a substitute for prescription medication, precipitating a downward spiral that sent him to rehab. The latter says her daughter used prescribed opiates to treat a debilitating medical condition before kratom helped her emerge from a pharmaceutical fog and become happy and healthy again.
We've not named the parents or their children (he is in his early twenties, she is in her mid-thirties) and have omitted references to home towns and other identifiers in order to protect their privacy. But the following observations, shared in the parents' own words, represent the vastly different experiences of many kratom users.
A Father's Story
"My son was an athlete. He played all four sports growing up before settling on basketball in high school. But he got injured during his senior year. He was a shooter; that's what kept him on the team. But he got an upper back injury along his spine from lifting.
"He's a classic self-medicator, and after his injury, he started taking his mother's Oxycontin and formed an addiction. We're divorced, but she's had all kinds of back issues, so he had access to these pills, which masked the pain — so he didn't realize that the injury was getting worse and worse. His mom called me and said, 'I'm noticing my pills are gone. I think he might be taking them.' That's when I jumped in, and it was the shit-storm you'd expect. At first there was a lot of denial. But then he told me, 'I'm addicted to these oxys. I can't get off them.'
"Rather than sticking him in therapy, I handled it myself. I drug-tested him weekly using over-the-counter drug tests, and he never failed one. So over the summer, before he went off to college, I let the drug-testing go. I felt like we'd beaten it.
"At college, he and his roommate got caught with a six-pack of beer in their dorm. He's not a big drinker, but the college has a zero-tolerance policy, so he got thrown into the alcohol program, which has daily testing. It's actually quite ridiculous. When he came home for Christmas, he had to pee in a cup and we had to film him. But he never tested positive for anything. We knew he wasn't on opiates, he wasn't on coke. But there's no test for kratom.
"During the next three years, he got weird. He kind of withdrew. He was shaking, he was skinny. He had dark rings under his eyes. My brother asked me if he was on meth, even though he was passing all his drug tests. It flew under my radar for a while. I just felt like, 'My kid's weird and fidgety and he says ridiculous stuff and I can't talk to him. He's just changed, and it is what it is.'
"Then, a few months ago, he had a seizure in class. After that, he was at my house, doing homework on a Sunday night, and he left his email open. I was going to close it, but then I thought, 'I'm going to do something I've never done before and look at his email.' And I found out he'd opened up a line of credit for $5,000, which was kind of weird, because I have the wherewithal to pay for all his college. And I also found two places where he was buying kratom from. I looked at the purchaser, and it was his mom. She was buying it and it was being shipped to his house.
"When I asked his mom about it, she said it was a natural herb or something. But it took me three minutes of research to realize, 'Houston, we've got a problem.' I connected the dots immediately to how it pertained to him — that people were using it to come down from heroin and opiates, and it was supposed to be good for back pain and anxiety. So I talked to his mom again, and she was horrified. She'd been buying it for him for a year, and he'd asked her not to tell me about it 'because Dad doesn't like supplements.' He'd been manipulating her.
"I drove up to the school and said, 'Dude, what's this kratom? I know everything about it now.' And he was like, 'Thank God, Dad. I've been trying to get off this stuff for a year, and it's impossible.' Typically, people mix kratom with water and drink it as a tea, and that's what he started out doing. But when that stopped working for him, he started taking it dry — a spoonful or maybe two — and pounding a glass of water. He was doing it up to sixteen times a day.
"I said, 'Are you willing to go to a clinic?' He said, 'Absolutely.' When he said that, I almost started to cry. That's where our journey started on his recovery.
"He went into rehab without a fight. I didn't want to mess with the in-patient, out-patient thing. I thought, 'Let's put him in for ninety days and attack this thing head on.' The withdrawal took a solid two weeks, and it was heavy: sore legs, sore arms, sore muscles, sore everything. He couldn't sleep for two weeks. It was a gnarly, nasty deal. But since then, he's been getting better. His skin tone is normal again, and he gained 25 pounds in a month and a half, because kratom is an appetite suppressant. He's getting back to the way he was before. When he was on kratom, he was hard to be around, but now he's buff, he's eating, he's gentle, he's not fidgety. He had that fidgety meth thing going on, but he's not shaking anymore, not defensive. It's been the most amazing transformation. I actually have my son back again.
"People get livid about kratom not being available to them, because then they'd have to go back to opiates. But they're just trading one addiction for another. I can't see how anybody could say one is better than other. The whole thing is infuriating to me."
A Mother's Story
"My daughter has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome type 3. It's a genetic disease. She doesn't have enough collagen in her bones, in her joints.
"She's had it since she was born, but we didn't know. She'd be playing in a swing and her elbow would get dislocated constantly. We had to keep going to the emergency room. Finally, we learned to relocate it. But around fifteen or sixteen, she tried to work, and she kept getting fired because she had all these notes from doctors saying she couldn't do certain things.
"She loves to bake, but she kept being fired from King Soopers, Albertsons, Safeway. I figured she couldn't keep a job. So back in 2001, 2002, when she was older, I bought her a bakery so she could be her own boss, without knowing what the disease was. And it caused more damage, because she was lifting a lot of things. Bakery stuff is heavy. I had my youngest daughter helping, but she had the disease, too. We didn't know about that, either. They were both complaining about a lot of pain.
"Finally, we found a doctor who told us about the disease. At the time we learned of the illness, a specialist in Indiana informed that only three doctors knew about the illness. That was, according to him. He stated one was in England, the other in France, and he was in the U.S. He had the illness as well! He understood. There are more doctors now who are aware of the illness, but don’t know what to do.
"Afterward, my daughter asked, 'What should we do with the bakery?' I said, 'Shut it down.'
"That's when the doctors started putting her on pain medication. She'd been on Ibuprofen and whatever before then, but it was damaging her stomach. So she started pain management. Over the years, she'd take Vicodin, Oxycontin, Oxycodone, and she'd have to take sleeping pills, too, because the pain wouldn't let her sleep.
"Things kept getting worse and worse. She was like a zombie, always sleepy. She would lay down and fall asleep. Sometimes she'd try to eat and she'd go to sleep, too. She just wasn't my daughter anymore. I said to her, 'These doctors are going to kill you.'
"Then her main doctor retired and nobody wanted to touch her. The other doctors didn't want to prescribe pain medication anymore, and no matter how many Vicodins she was taking, they weren't helping. She was hurting so much.
"Then this kid we know told her about kratom. He used it for fun, but he said it was good for pain and told me where to get it on the Internet. She didn't want to use it at first, just like she didn't want to take pot. But finally, she decided to try it.
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"She had to sample a few different kinds, because some of it would work for her and some of it wouldn't. Like, the white vein kratom didn't work for her at all, and the red vein didn't, either. But the green vein one did work. There are different strains of the green, and she takes one during the day and another one when she knows she's not going to be going anywhere. She takes spoonfuls with something citric: lime juice or orange juice or something like that. It was trial and error, but she figured out what worked for her.
"She's so much better now. Before, she was sleepy and lethargic — always tired, always hurting. Now, it's not like she doesn't have pain, but it's controllable. And her face: She looks alive. She's not sleeping all day. And she can really tell the difference. She'll say, 'You see those drug addicts on the street, where they're slumped over and stuff? That was me.' It was basically like she was a heroin addict. But she weaned herself off all the pills. She was sick for two weeks. But she's so much better.
"It's been about a year and a half since she started taking kratom, and I just feel like my daughter is alive again. It's not cheap, but thank goodness we can buy it by the kilo.
"These darned feds who are trying to stop kratom have no idea that they're playing with my daughter's life. She said to me, 'Mommy, if they ever make kratom illegal and I can't use it, I guess I'll kill myself.' That's what a lifesaver it's been for my family. She was angry, depressed, and now she's not. This stuff has saved my daughter's life."