Kratom

Kratom tea is served from glass containers and is branded as red Bali, white maeng da, and green maeng da at this kratom shop in Clearwater.

CLEARWATER — On Oct. 2, Mary Tabar told the City Council how kratom led to neurological damage, memory loss, depression, and other physical ailments that ruined her daughter’s ability to live a full life.

“We spent thousands of dollars on neurologists and on psychologists, trying to see if we could help her brain,” Tabar told the council during her heartfelt plea for the city to ban the substance. “I really hope if you guys are considering a ban on it that you do your homework, do your research,” Tabar told them.

Dozens of local kratom users who came to the Nov. 7 council meeting to testify to what they believe is kratom’s benevolence and positive health effects also urged the council to study the substance before deciding its future.

In fact, the City Attorney’s Office had studied regulatory approaches and the Clearwater Police Department had researched law enforcement incidents involving kratom.

But not anymore.

At the end of its Nov. 18 work session, the City Council halted all staff research into kratom, ending a possible path to addressing what the Federal Drug Administration considers a major health hazard in America. The consensus among Mayor George Cretekos and city councilmembers was to let the state Legislature or the federal government regulate the controversial chemical.

‘Heart goes out’ to families

Hamilton, who brought up the city’s kratom research during councilmember comments at the end of each meeting, addressed Tabar and other mothers who have asked Clearwater and other Pinellas County municipalities to regulate, or even ban, the substance. He believes it’s a state or federal issue.

“My heart goes out to anyone who has lost a family member or a loved one to any aspect of kratom, who believe that kratom was a continuing factor to a loss of a loved one,” Hamilton said. “The chemical characteristics of it, the effects it has on the human body — this is something that needs to be decided (and) legislated at the state level at a minimum.”

Kratom is a controlled substance in 16 nations, but the U.S. government has struggled to define a regulatory regime for the drug. The FDA is considering regulating it like other Schedule 1 drugs such as heroin, LSD, peyote, and Ecstasy, but to date kratom is legal at the federal level. The FDA, which has connected 44 deaths to the substance, banned manufacturing of kratom as a diet supplement in 2014. Then, in 2017, it began seizing shipments of the substance, including large batches in California and South Carolina. In June, the FDA began sending warning letters to brick and mortar stores as well as websites for what the FDA considers “unproven claims about kratom’s ability to treat or cure opioid addiction and withdrawal symptoms.”

According to the Florida Legislature website, state lawmakers filed House and Senate bills to add kratom to the state’s list of controlled substances and to make possession, sale, manufacture and delivery of kratom a first-degree misdemeanor. The bills died in committee.

To date, only Sarasota County bans kratom. A 2014 Sarasota County ordinance makes kratom possession punishable by up to 60 days in the county jail and/or a $500 fine. 

Parents not happy with decision

Tabar was not happy about the Clearwater City Council’s decision.

“I think (the council) didn’t have facts since the families and I study kratom much deeper than the average person would have time for,” Tabar said. “I am also saddened for people slipping through the cracks due to either lack of knowledge or no testing.”

She said she and other parents will continue to inform elected officials about what they see as the dangers of Mitragyna speciose, the chemical ingredient in kratom, which comes from an evergreen tree native to Southeast Asia.

“Our children are just victims of a legal opioid slipping through the cracks,” Tabar said.

Shane Cox Sr., owner of The Garden of Tea on Gulf to Bay Boulevard, sells various brands of brewed kratom tea. He also sells powder, so users can make tea or other kratom recipes at home. He said the product helps alleviate high blood pressure and other symptoms of opioid withdrawal, allowing formerly addicted people to return to normal lives.

“We are happy with the decision and hope we all get an outcome that is suitable for everyone,” Cox said of the council’s decision.

Kratom on radar two years ago

Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter told councilmembers what his department found after a review of kratom in incident reports.

“Kratom popped up in our radar two years ago, and showed up more in DUI cases than anything else,” Slaughter said. “At least 26 stores in Clearwater use kratom.”

According to Slaughter, the substance has come up in two death investigations in the past few years.

“In one case, the medical examiner did attribute the death to an overdose of kratom – however, in that case, the person had numerous physical ailments and obtained it online,” Slaughter said. “The other incident was a suicide from a person who had been suffering from mental illness and hallucinations prior to any kratom use.”

It is common for other drugs to be in the system in kratom death investigations.

“In our review of the national state of death investigations, 80 percent to 90 percent of them involve multi-drug toxicity issues; it’s not a singular cause of death.”

Its availability online makes it tough for cities to control, Slaughter said. Not only that, but kratom is not classified as an illegal substance/drug in Florida, so possession is not a crime.

“Our recommendation right now is we don’t believe there is a need to regulate it,” the chief said. “This is where we are.”

That does not mean police will ignore it.

Driving while impaired

When asked in October whether his officers arrest or ticket people who possess kratom, Clearwater Deputy Police Chief Eric Gandy said, “It could be possible for someone to be arrested for DUI after using it in situations where a law enforcement officer establishes probable cause that the driver’s ‘normal faculties’ were impaired.”

The council didn’t have to take a vote to halt research, they simply directed city staff to discontinue the effort.

Hamilton also felt a Clearwater kratom ban would be meaningless if other towns don’t regulate or criminalize the substance.

“When you take into consideration that Pinellas County has 26 other municipalities, if we take a position to ban it, but Dunedin and Safety Harbor don’t, it is still readily accessible in those towns and it’s still accessible on the Internet.”

Cretekos was upset the council had made a decision about kratom without notifying the public. He had promised kratom proponents that the council would alert the public before it made decisions on kratom.

“One of the things we told the public was that we would give them notice if we were going to be discussing this again,” Cretekos said. “I would make sure they knew we were having another discussion; that way they wouldn’t be blindsided.”