Two cafes in Bushwick are serving a drink made from a plant in the coffee family that some claim helps opioid withdrawls. It’s still legal, but is struggling with a public relations problem.
You’ve either never heard of kratom—I hadn’t until about a week ago—or you’ve heard of it but only in relation to recovering heroin users. While recovering opioid addicts are among the most vocal kratom proponents, they represent a small percentage of kratom drinkers.
Take Lala, for example, whom I met at House of Kava, one of only two kratom-serving establishments in Brooklyn. Lala has lupus, a rare autoimmune disease that causes bad joint pain affecting approximately .4 percent of Americans.
To repair damage caused by her lupus, Lala had an artificial disc put in her spine and was taking a cocktail of powerful narcotics to ease the pain.
“They were prescribing me painkillers, opiate painkillers,”Lala said. “I was taking Percocet, oxycodone, Vicodin, and Norco all at the same time,”
Like many who are prescribed opiate painkillers, Lala built up a tolerance and found herself taking more and more pills for the same effect. One day, while googling kratom, she found House of Kava and decided to try it. She found that it was better than prescription painkillers.
“It works great for pain relief, it’s great for anti-inflammatory,” she explained. “For me, it’s more effective.”
Harding Stowe, owner of the other kratom-serving joint, Brooklyn Kava, explained why people like kratom tea.
“It’s not an opiate, it doesn’t have a lot of those negative effects, and it really does help people,” Stowe said. “It can help people with anxiety, with pain. Things that would normally require a chemical.”
So what exactly is kratom, and how does it work?
Kratom is a plant native to Southeast Asia, a relative of our friend coffee. It is commonly consumed, most often as an all-natural herbal tea.
The leaves of the kratom tree contain a number of alkaloids, naturally occurring nitrogen-based chemical compounds. The most abundant of these are opioid agonists, meaning they bind with the brain’s opioid receptors.
Heroin is also an opioid receptor agonist but a much less selective one than kratom’s, meaning that it bonds with opioid receptors much more strongly and for longer periods of time.
This is why kratom has been such a boon for those struggling with opiate addiction. It doesn’t create a high, but it provides enough of a sedated or euphoric feeling to take the edge off of heroin’s notorious withdrawal symptoms. This has caused a lot of the misconceptions around the plant.
“There’s this idea that these receptors are solely created to facilitate opiates, which is just not true,” said House of Kava co-owner Joey Roberts. “They’re essential to our daily existence— drinking coffee, eating chocolate, getting a hug from your mom.”
These are all activities that produce endorphins, the “feel good” feeling, in your brain.
To the chagrin of many, including the owners of House of Kava and Brooklyn Kava, kratom’s future in America is uncertain. When I asked if kratom is legal or illegal, another House of Kava co-owner explained that the herb is in murky legal waters.
“Kava [a similar but unrelated herbal tea] is FDA approved,” said Joyci Borovsky. “It’s legal, you can buy it at a health food store or wherever. Kratom isn’t like that.”
Federally, kratom isn’t illegal, despite government attempts. Just last year the Drug Enforcement Agency announced plans to place kratom on the drug schedule at Schedule 1, alongside heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. The DEA abandoned the plan, at least for now, in the face of opposition from both Congress and the public.
This has left legality up to states and municipalities. Kratom is illegal in Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Tennessee, Vermont, and Wisconsin, as well as in San Francisco, while being explicitly legal in Florida. It has proven to be a roadblock to both FDA approval and more comprehensive scientific study.
As of today, Stowe at Brooklyn Kava, and Roberts and Borovsky at House of Kava are making and selling kratom legally. But, as Borovsky pointed out, “New York, as of now, is up in the air. We don’t really know where it’s standing.”
“I think for the most part it’s going to be okay for a little while,” Stowe said. “[But] I think it is possible at some point in time that it will get banned.”
The bigger issue is the consumers like Lala who stand to get hurt, both emotionally and physically, if kratom is scheduled as a controlled substance. Recreational users will find something else to enjoy, but people who rely on it for their addiction recovery, for pain management, to ease their anxiety — they have a lot to lose.