As the Low Tide Lounge on Beach Boulevard in Gulfport celebrated its first anniversary in February, in the midst of the scare that one of its products may be taken off the shelves later this year.
Low Tide specializes in kava, but roughly 50 percent of its sales, say owners Sean Simpson and Kevin Tighe, are from kratom tea.
Kratom, an herb of the coffee family from Southeast Asia, surfaced in US markets around 15 years ago. Traditionally, its leaves are chewed, smoked or drunk as tea. Its psychoactive qualities, says Simpson, mildly mimic those of opioid plants by reaching the same receptors in the brain.
In February 2014, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an alert that allows the agency to detain imported kratom, and has confiscated multiple shipments since.
More locally, the herb has been targeted by State Representative Kristin Jacobs after the July 2014 Palm Beach County suicide of Ian Mautner. His mother blamed his kratom consumption.
In January 2015, Jacobs filed a bill that would classify kratom as a Schedule-I controlled substance. Schedule-I status would place kratom among the drugs the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) considers most dangerous, with a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical benefits. (Heroin, ecstasy and marijuana are all Schedule-I drugs, though medical marijuana is legal in 23 states.)
However, the kratom-drinking community argues there are medical benefits.
“Based on the experiences of the people who have been consuming it for 1000s of years, kratom, depending on the strain, has been shown to create a number of different effects,” says Tighe. “There are some [types of kratom] that are more stimulating, some that are more relaxing and some that are pain relievers.”
Low Tide bartender Zack Maher agrees, saying, “It helped me big time in life.”
To cope with spinal pain, as a teen, Maher says he was prescribed painkillers, including Percocet, and became addicted. Three years ago, he says, he got sober, but had to endure constant ache until he found drinking kratom helped alleviate it.
Acupuncture Physician and Registered Herbalist Robert Linde, owner of Acupuncture & Herbal Therapies in St. Petersburg, also considers kratom medicinal. In addition to backing the claim that kratom eases chronic pain, Linde says, “There are volumes of research showing its effectiveness in assisting people getting off of opioid drugs, both prescription to non-prescription, anything from heroin to Oxycodone.”
Linde criticizes the ban of any natural herb, although he is not against some regulations.
However, even when drinking kratom traditionally as tea, “without a doubt there are side effects,” Linde says, that include “everything from nausea to migraine headache,” and the interaction of kratom with other drugs has to be considered.
Kratom can also cause a mild addiction if a lot of it is consumed often, Linde says.
“If you’re using it medicinally,” he says, “at the appropriate dosing, so as not to create a dependency, low dosage can be very effective long-term. If you’re using it recreationally, get a designated driver and don’t enjoy it every day – enjoy it every once in a while.”
For now, you can still possess kratom and sell it, but according to Linde, the import ban is FDA’s signature roundabout way to terminate an herb’s sales.
“In order to open up that import ban,” Linde explains, “we have to either do research to prove that it’s safe, or prove that it was in the US prior to [the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of] 1994 and used as an herbal supplement.”
Linde also criticizes the FDA, saying, “They are fans of the pharmaceutical drugs; they are not fans of dietary supplements.”
However, “It’s worth fighting it,” Linde says about the ban. Some national organizations of, such as the American Herbalists Guild, where he was previously on the board of directors, may help oppose governmental interference.
Following Jacobs’ bill, some local kratom businesses, like Dharma Botanicals, added a disclaimer stating that the products they sell are not intended for internal use and that the FDA does not consider kratom a dietary supplement. Others, like Mad Hatters Ethnobotanical Tea Bar in St. Petersburg, took the tea off the menu completely.
Mad Hatters owners Judah Love and Levy Love say they attended meetings with other kava bar owners and sought legal and political help in lobbying against the ban. Their business has been negatively affected, they say, because 70 percent of their sales came from kratom tea.
“We’re trying to join the fight and become unified and do what we can to make them regulate it as opposed to ban it,” Levy Love says.
Low Tide owners are optimistic that the community will successfully fight the ban. Jacobs attempted to pass the measure on a county level during her last weeks as Broward County Commissioner in October 2014 and failed. Simpson and Tighe believe it is “highly unlikely” that the ban will be passed statewide.
“There is such an overwhelming support for it,” says Tighe. “Every day we have people who are saying thank you for opening this place.”
Update: This week during a criminal justice hearing, state lawmakers decided that they want to know more about kratom and have approved an amendment that will appoint the Attorney General’s office as the lead agency on studying the effects of the herb. For now, Kratom will remain legal to buy and use in Florida.