WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - The DEA calls Kratom one of its "drugs of concern." It's legal and it's growing in popularity in Wilmington, along with another drink called Kava.
Kava is made from the roots of a shrub that grows in the South Pacific. It can either be served as a drink or in pill form. Many people who use Kava say it helps them to relax.
Kratom, however, is a stimulant. In the UK, Kratom is known as "herbal speedball." It comes from a tropical tree that grows in Thailand. It can also be served in pill form or in a tea.
In some countries and a few states, Kratom is illegal.
At Kat 5 Kava, a Kava and Kratom bar in downtown Wilmington, nearly every seat is taken.
It's 3:30 on a Wednesday afternoon.
The crowd includes people of all ages.
William Fairall, a local DJ, is one of the regulars here.
He drinks both Kava and Kratom.
Fairall described the feeling he gets when he drinks Kratom, "It's a happy feeling. It's a happy euphoria. A pick me up."
Fairall tells us Kratom is a bit like drinking coffee but stronger. He drinks it to give him energy for his late-night DJ gigs.
"It's more of a pick me up than coffee is," he said. "But I think coffee, you kind of get used to that after a while."
Ben Boyatt, who owns Kat 5 Kava, said Kratom comes from a plant that is closely related to the coffee plant and more and more people are coming into the business to try it.
"I have college students, doctors, lawyers and law enforcement," he said.
Some drink the Kratom, which tastes like a strong hot tea, for energy. Others drink Kava, a muddy looking and tasting substance, to relax.
"It's been described as Cape Fear River water," Boyatt said. "Somebody said it tastes like summer camp. Most people say it tastes like mud."
Kava can cause mouth numbness, which is why in some countries it is used as a local anesthetic for dental work.
With a taste like Cape Fear River water, it's surprising that people sit around and sip this stuff.
But Boyatt said the feeling Kratom and Kava gives the customer is worth it.
"In between classes, taking their lunch break, from a stressful day at the office so they come in real quick for some shells (Kava) and that way they don't have alcohol," he said. "You don't lose mental clarity. You keep that unlike alcohol where you black out.
About the taste, Boyatt said, "If you are taking a shot of tequila, it doesn't taste good either but people still do it."
Some online forums for recovering addicts recommend the use of Kratom to help users wean themselves from heroin.
While Boyatt said he has some customers who are recovering addicts, he said a majority of his customers are not and drink Kratom because they like the way it makes them feel.
"If they are and it's stopping them from using, then I'm not going to complain. That's better than the alternative," Boyatt said.
However, Kenny House, who is the Vice-President of Clinical Services at Coastal Horizons Center and an expert on addiction, would not recommend this for his patients.
"We do not recommend using this as a self prescribed treatment," he said. "We recommend people get good counseling, get prescribed medications that have been tested and are proven to be effective and safe."
House is concerned about the use of Kratom and Kava by the general public.
He said while they are both legal in North Carolina, the substances mimic opiate or opioid drugs, like oxycontin, vicodin and heroin.
In large doses, kratom has been known to cause hallucinations, delusion and confusion.
"It's not safe and one of the challenges is it's not approved by the FDA, so nobody is regulating it," he said. "Nobody knows what happens with it, what they are really getting. So, those are the concerns we have from the health perspective."
At least three states, Indiana, Tennessee and Vermont, have banned Kratom and others are considering a ban.
However, back at Kat 5 Kava, both Boyatt and Fairall assure Kava and Kratom are safe. Boyatt said he has been consuming the products for years and it has not had any impact on his health.
"They banned it because people have been comparing it to heroin," Boyatt said. "It's wrongfully compared. It should be compared to coffee. It's a stimulant."
"It's earthly so I would assume it doesn't have any ill effect," said Fairall, who tells us it has had only a positive impact on his health. "I get up bright and early, do what I've got to do during the day. Health is fine."
The Drug Enforcement Administration details both Kava and Kratom in fact sheets on its website.
The US Food and Drug Administration recently issued an import alert on Kratom, meaning FDA workers can detain any imports of the product coming into the country. The advisory states that "there does not appear to be a history of use or other evidence of safety establishing that kratom will reasonably be expected to be safe as a dietary ingredient." The FDA also writes that consumption of kratom can lead to respiratory depression, agitation, aggression, sleeplessness, hallucinations, delusions and tremors.
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