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SPECIAL REPORT: Kratom Controversy — What is kratom?

Kratom stores and products have been popping up all over the place, but what is the supplement and why is the FDA warning consumers not to use it?

TYLER, Texas — Kratom products are sold everywhere from smoke shops to gas stations, and even specialized stores. 

Proponents of the herbal supplement claim it can help with a lack of energy, focus or even a natural alternative to pain medication and opioids but the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't agree and is warning people not to buy it.

Grown mainly in southeast Asia, kratom looks like an average house plant. Mac Haddow, with the American Kratom Association says the plant can be used for a number of health reasons. 

"It has been used there for centuries by mostly laborers who would pick the leaves from the trees which grow everywhere," Haddow said. "They would chew on him for an energy boost and increase focus and some, because of the long hot days they were working, would use it in order to as an analgesic to relieve pain"

David Shelton owns three stores that sell kratom in East Texas and has been using the product for years. 

"A lot of people that buy the powder, it's just the ground leaves," Shelton said. "So they'll mix it in a beverage, or they'll put some water in their mouth, toss it in their mouth, and then follow it with more water."

But it's the possible effects of the plant, that has some people concerned and others optimistic.  

"I have seen a lot of people, including myself, that have found that kratom offered some pain relief, without the side effects that pharmaceuticals offer," Shelton said.  

Mac Haddow and his colleagues at the American Kratom Association, say Kratom has gotten a bad reputation due to unscrupulous vendors, mixing the herb with other more dangerous ingredients. 

"Kratom in its natural form does not give you a high, doesn't give you that reinforcing euphoric high," Haddow said. "It does not go to your respiratory system, so you're no danger, or any significant danger of dying of an overdose on Kratom."

According to the American Kratom Association, people use kratom for a number of different benefits including increased energy, focus and even pain relief. 

"So people report that they take it for the energy boost and the increase focus. About a third of the katrom consumer population, about 15 million people in the United States," Haddow said. "Another third say that they take it for its calming effect that reduces anxiety. And then the final third are using it in this journey that they're on in order to reduce opioid use, and or to replace it."

In February 2020, Johns Hopkins surveyed nearly 2,800 adult kratom users in the U.S. to find out more about the uses and impacts of the substance. Researchers concluded the compound likely has a lower rate of harm than prescription opioids for treating pain, anxiety, depression and addiction.  

However the FDA has not approved kratom for use and in September 2019, the administration issued a warning to consumers asking people not to use the substance.  

Smith County District Attorney Jacob Putman says since kratom is not approved by the FDA, consumers should be careful about purchasing the product. 

"If it's not a regulated substance, you don't know what's in the packaging," Putman said. "So you could be buying something that's illegal without your knowledge."

Six states have banned kratom from being bought or sold. Texas, is not one of them. Putman says even though the substance is legal to buy, consumers still should do their homework before buying it.  

"What we see from time to time, is people selling a new product, with a new label that everyone gets excited about buying," said Putman. "They don't always know what they're getting. So when they're selling kratom, what is the actual chemical compound of the substance that's in the package? If it's not being regulated by the FDA, and people don't always know what they're getting?"

The American Kratom Association is actually pushing for regulations. Six states have already passed the Kratom Consumer Protection Act and it's close to passing in several others. 

"We believe it out should be regulated," said Haddow. "It's our belief thaat Kratom that sold in the state of Texas should be manufactured using good manufacturing standards, there should be a restriction on adding any dangerous substance to it. It should be labeled properly and restricted by age so that minors can't buy without parental consent. And we think that that should be the standard in every state. "

"I think everybody needs to go out and do the research and really dive in and look at the good, the bad, the ugly, and be able to go to a resource that you can ask questions that are actually knowledgeable on kratom," said Shelton. 

His store only allows people who are 21 and up to shop and takes pride in educating people on the product first.  

"We don't have to follow those guidelines but we really want people and adults to be knowledgeable and not come in here looking for a buzz or a certain feeling, we want to be able to help those that are actually in pain, and that have a legitimate need and educate them and they can make their own decisions," said Shelton. 

The experts agree that you should do your homework first before purchasing kratom or any herbal supplement and should always speak with your doctor before adding something to your diet.