Derived from a plant native to Southeast Asia, kratom is an opioid consumed in many forms. Statesman Journal
Every morning, Hernando resident Bethany Cook scoops a couple of teaspoons of green herbal powder into her mouth, washing it down with a drink.
The powder is called kratom. It’s derived the crushed up leaves of a plant native to Southeast Asia, traditionally used as a stimulant and medicine. It’s bitter and earthy and “tastes horrible,” Cook says.
“I’m imagining it’s how dirt would taste like. I’ve never tasted anything like it, but it helps me more than anything ever has,” she said.
She’ll repeat the process two more times throughout the day — around lunchtime and then when she gets home from her job at a warehouse.
She takes kratom despite the bitterness, Cook said, because it gives her a boost of energy and helps suppress the chronic pain that wracks her body. She credits the herbal supplement with stopping her anxiety attacks and helping her kick a prescription pain pill addiction.
“Kratom changed my life,” said Cook, who volunteers with the American Kratom Association.
The same herbal product is being outlawed by an increasing number of cities and counties across Mississippi, where its sale or possession is a misdemeanor.
Members of a Lowndes County-based group behind the push for banning kratom say the substance — which is unregulated and widely available at gas stations and convenience stores — is a threat to health and safety.
“Kratom is dangerous, destructive and highly addictive,” said Glenn Lautzenhiser, chairman of the Lowndes County Community Foundation’s Crime and Addiction Task Force. “It is destroying lives and families.”
Kratom — linked to more overdose deaths in recent years — is banned in several states across the country. Bills to illegalize kratom statewide in Mississippi failed last legislative session and some communities have decided to move forward with their own local bans.
So far, 23 cities and 10 counties in Mississippi have criminalized kratom, many at the urging of the Crime and Addiction Task Force, Lautzenhiser said.
“We are ready to go any place that will ask us to come,” he said. “We hope to see the day this will be banned through the entire state of Mississippi.”
As members of the task force travel around the state to advocate for more kratom bans, pro-kratom opponents, such as Cook, are also mobilizing. Cook said people whose lives have been changed for the better by kratom plan to speak at public meetings as more communities take up the issue.
What is kratom?
Kratom, the plant, is in the coffee family. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, people in Southeast Asia traditionally chewed kratom leaves or used them to brew tea to feel more alert and improve work productivity. It’s also been used for religious ceremonies and to treat medical conditions, such as pain and diarrhea.
More recently, some people have started using kratom as a way to control withdrawal symptoms and cravings from addiction, said the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health’s website warns that kratom may be addictive and has been linked to some deaths, mostly when kratom is used alongside opioids and other drugs. There have been no clinical trials to evaluate kratom’s effect on health and no clinical research into whether the substance is a safe and effective in treating opioid addictions.
‘Kratom helps me’
Though the efficacy and safety of kratom are being questioned by health professionals and law enforcement, some users swear by it.
More than a year ago, Cook uprooted her life in Arkansas, where kratom is illegal, to move to Mississippi so she could continue to take the herb.
Years ago, before the move, Cook began a pain management program for her fibromyalgia, migraines and other painful medical conditions.
At the time she didn’t know much about opioid pain pills, such as oxycontin, she said. She was reluctant to take them, but a doctor convinced her to give the pills a try.
She got hooked.
Cook starts to cry when she talks about what kind of life she was living in the throes of her addiction.
Every month, she would get a prescription for 90 pills, she said. They would be gone within three days. For the remaining weeks, she’d go to the streets, looking for a fix. If she couldn’t afford pills on the black market, she’d suffer through withdrawal.
For a short while, she did heroin.
“It was a horrible roller coaster ride that I never want to get on again,” she said. “I wasn’t the mother I was supposed to be when I was on the pill. I just look at the person I used to be and I’m nowhere near that person anymore. I never want to be that person again.”
Other pills prescribed by doctors, intended to help with her anxiety and depression, were ineffective or had terrible side effects, Cook said.
One made her feel “homicidal,” she said.
“I was so scared I was going to hurt somebody and I couldn’t stop it,” Cook said. “Normally I’m happy-go-lucky and would never hurt a fly.”
Then someone told her about kratom. She bought some and took it and waited for about 30 minutes.
“I just started getting up and cleaning and singing and I was just me again,” she said.
Cook said doesn’t take any regularly prescribed medication anymore — just kratom three times a day.
Cook said she’s not addicted to kratom and when she stops using it she doesn’t experience any withdrawal symptoms.
“Now I’m living a productive life. I’m a mother, I’m a grandmother. It’s just amazing,” she said.
‘This drug has absolutely destroyed their lives’
Lautzenhiser also has stories about kratom — things he’s heard from people across Mississippi and beyond after his task force began advocating for kratom bans.
There’s a local minister whose son began taking kratom, became addicted and struggled to quit his habit.
A Mississippi nurse’s once husband tried a bottle of liquid kratom-based drink from a convenience store. He became addicted and was spending up to $800 a week on the substance, Lautzenhiser said.
There’s the father from the Dallas metro area whose 24-year-old son died unexpectedly with no drugs in his system, just kratom, he said.
“Kratom has no place in any community. People should not seek their meds in convenience stores and gas stations,” Lautzenhiser said.
Between July 2016 and December 2017, kratom was a cause of death in 91 overdoses in the U.S., according to a report released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In seven of the overdoses, kratom was the only substance to test positive in a toxicology report, though other substances could not be ruled out, the CDC said.
There have been kratom-related deaths in Mississippi as well, said Eddie Hawkins, a lieutenant with the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics and a candidate for Lowndes County sheriff who also serves on the Crime and Addiction Task Force with Lautzenhiser.
Hawkins said the state saw 11 overdose deaths in 2018 related to kratom. In all but two of the cases, the deceased had other drugs in their system too, such as opioids.
The way kratom acts on the brain is similar to opioids, he said.
“People who are working shift work, long hours will try the drug to get a little boost of energy. Before they know it their body is building up tolerance to it. That’s where the addiction comes in. Next thing you know they’re spending $800 a week on it,” Hawkins said. “During our research, we talked to family members. They told us stories about how this drug has absolutely destroyed their lives. They’re spending everything they own on this drug. Now the criminal activities begin.”
Hawkins, Lautzenhiser and other task force members didn’t expect to become the leaders of an anti-kratom crusade sweeping Mississippi. The group was originally organized with a focus on improving the Lowndes County and Columbus area.
Concerned about the widespread availability of the unregulated substance, they decided to urge Columbus city officials to implement a ban in February. Momentum built in the following months.
In many of the bans being enacted across the state, anyone caught selling or possessing kratom could be fined up to $1,000 and spend time in jail.
Regulate, don’t ban, kratom user says
Not all jurisdictions that considered outlawing kratom have moved forward with bans. Officials of West Point and Clay County, in northeast Mississippi, rejected a proposed ban on Kratom on Tuesday, reported the Daily Times Leader. They instead decided to leave regulation to state and federal agencies.
Hearing about Clay County and West Point was “such a ray of sunshine” for Cook.
Cook believes kratom should be regulated, not outlawed. She said kratom shouldn’t be sold to minors and “kratom extract shots” commonly found at gas stations and convenience stores should be banned because the way they’re processed makes them more potent and potentially more dangerous.
Cook wants people struggling with addiction to know they’re not alone.
“They don’t have to go from one drug to another or trade an addiction,” she said.
She wants kratom leaf products to continue to be available for people with addiction issues.
“Honestly I don’t know what I would do if kratom was banned here in Mississippi,” she said. “I would probably move again and I don’t want to uproot my life.”
What cities and counties have banned kratom in Mississippi?
The counties and cities which have outlawed kratom include the following, according to Lautzenhiser:
- Alcorn County
- Tishomingo County
- Prentiss County
- Itawamba County
- Lowndes County
- Union County
- Monroe County
- Tippah County
- Calhoun County
- Noxubee County
- New Albany
- Calhoun City
- Tishomingo City
- Blue Mountain.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Read or Share this story: https://www.clarionledger.com/story/news/2019/05/17/kratom-bans-mississippi-cities-counties-criminalize-herbal-supplement-pros-cons/3667344002/