Discussions surrounding kava often overlap with discussions surrounding kratom for one reason or another: because they are both herbal products hailing from beyond the western world; because they both have been used in the realm of alternative and complementary medicine; or because they are mistakenly perceived as interchangeable.
Recently, the Clearwater Beacon published an article on kratom and the present issue of the possible banning of kratom sales and possession in Clearwater, Florida. The Clearwater Beacon is a Tampa Bay Newspaper that is published weekly and serves the cities of Clearwater, Countryside, and Safety Harbor. The article on kratom is currently one of the most popular articles on their website.
Kratom in the Media vs Kratom in Scientific Literature
The Beacon’s article begins and ends with charged statements respectively explicitly and implicitly against kratom and entirely has a tone suspicious and critical of kratom. It is largely framed from the perspective of worried and frightened parents concerned about their children using kratom but occasionally has snippets of perspectives from pro-kratom parties like the American Kratom Association and kratom bar owners. However, the article brings home its implicit warning that kratom is dangerous by ending with two stories of deaths allegedly caused by kratom.
Scientific literature on kratom is severely lacking and kratom—specifically its pharmacology or physiological effects on the body and reactions with other substances—need to be further researched. Having said that, reports of toxicity associated with kratom are rare and it is too large of a leap to infer that there is causality based on an association.
In 2010, the Journal of Medical Toxicology wrote a report on a case of a seizure and coma in a 64-year-old male following kratom exposure. The report was largely inclusive because at the time:
- There was “lack of diagnostic testing in human specimens has prevented confirmatory explanation of these observed clinical effects”;
- There were no testing methodologies capable of analyzing the active ingredient in kratom; and
- It was impossible to “definitively exclude the potential for other contributory causes of toxicity.”
Methodologies for analyzing kratom have developed since 2010 and would greatly aid in the further study of clinical toxicity and the pharmacology of kratom either confirming the alleged dangers of kratom or dismissing them and giving clarity on the proper and safe uses of kratom.
Comprehensive scientific reviews of Kratom from 2013 and 2018 found that while there is evidence of abuse and addiction potential of kratom and there are important mental health risks that require further study, the following stands true:
- Kratom enhances mood and relieves anxiety for some people.
- Kratom has harm reduction potential for substance users who want to quit opioids.
- Kratom’s withdrawal syndrome and dependence potential is often mild vs. opioids.
Why does kratom matter to kava?
While the Beacon’s article is not representative of every media outlet, it is a reflection of what a mainstream news outlet has to say about kratom and a reflective of the popular framing and perspectives used when talking about kratom to the public. It also arguably serves as an unscientific argument against and tool to be utilized against kratom use and—critically—scientific research on kratom. Because of kratom’s and kava’s perceived association with each other and because of their classifications as a dietary supplement, there are also potential implications for the kava industry and kava consumption.
For these reasons, the Beacon’s article on the possible kratom ban in Clearwater is an interesting piece to discuss, delve into the details of, and analyze.
This multiple-part kava conversation will begin with an overview and summary of the Beacon’s article followed by the questions and concerns that both the framing of the article and its actual content raise. After this analysis, the rhetoric surrounding kratom will be tied to the rhetoric surrounding kava and concluded by discussing the potential implications it has for the kava industry and kava consumption.
Emotionally Charged and Scientifically Unbacked Statements against Kratom
The article begins in quite an inflammatory and emotional way opening with, “If they haven’t died from kratom, young people are battling neurological damage, memory loss, inability to concentrate, and other physical ailments that halted their path to a full life.”
The piece is largely framed from the perspective of parents—or “frightened parents”—worried about the damage kratom is causing their children. One parent believed their high-achieving daughter was permanently disabled and “reduced to a shadow of her former self” because of “kratom use” testifying to the Clearwater City Council that they “spent thousands of dollars on neurologists and on psychologists, trying to see if we could help her brain.”
Another parent testified that their high-achieving student increasingly hung out at a kratom bar and then “next thing we know, she went into psychosis, lost all her scholarships, and she still has brain issues to this day. She has loss of concentration, delusions, bits of rage, and now that she’s
completely clean, she can’t keep up in school.”
Naturally, the parents want what they believe to be the culprit—kratom—to be made illegal to distribute and sell in Clearwater with the parents telling the council, “I really hope if you guys are considering a ban on it that you do your homework, do your research…It’s not approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), but when (tea rooms) put a sign up across the street from a high school saying this will help you with anxiety, it draws kids in.”
The “Ironies” of the Medicinal Benefits of Kratom
The alleged negative effects of kratom on young people under 25 are specifically highlighted throughout the piece juxtaposing it against the “ironic” fact that “the American Kratom Association — and some doctors — recommend kratom for reducing discomfort while withdrawing from opioids and other drugs.”
The perspective of kratom bar owners and the American Kratom Association is briefly given and then followed with the FDA’s suspicions surrounding kratom and the fact that it is not FDA approved. The American Kratom Association is apparently attempting to address these concerns through an online petition asking President Trump “to get an FDA Commissioner who will follow the science on kratom.”
The Clearwater City Council heard the testimonies of parents concerned about kratom and is currently weighing solution, but “does not yet have a timeline for the possible banning of the substance.” The City Attorney and Assistant City Attorney plan on reviewing the legal status of kratom and the possible dangers to the health of city residents. After this review, recommendations will be made by the police department to the City Council.
The Clearwater Police Department reportedly currently does not have any concerns about kratom stating that they are “aware of kratom, but its use has not been an issue in Clearwater. Clearwater police have been focused on a variety of illegal hard drug trafficking and use in the city.” Since kratom is not currently illegal, there are no kratom-related arrests or tickets warranted by the police stating that there is “the potential exception of a DUI” because “[i]t 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 article interprets this through what comes across as a cautionary warning, “In other words, kratom use could result in an impaired driving arrest.”
Deaths Allegedly Caused By Kratom
In addition to the concerns of parents over their children using kratom, alleged kratom deaths are emphasized including “second-hand kratom death” and one death from “kratom intoxication.”
The “second-hand kratom death” refers to the case of an employee of a group home stopping home to “‘parachute’ kratom by pouring the powder into toilet paper and swallowing it” while transporting a disabled adult from a doctor’s appointment. The employee then passed out leaving the adult in the backseat of the sweltering van leading to his eventual death. Upon waking up, the employee unsuccessfully performed CPR and then went back to house to get a gun with the intention of killing himself but was talked out of by his mother who went to meet him and called 911. The employee was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon and eventually charged with aggravated manslaughter of a disabled adult.
The reported death from kratom intoxication referred to the death of Christopher Waldron. He was struggling with opioid addiction and was “using kratom thinking it would wean him off opioids.” The article concludes by mentioning that Waldron’s mother started an online community for families hurt by kratom use with her saying, “I started a private Facebook group to bring together family members who have also been affected by kratom, who have lost kids [...], and the page has grown big over the last couple of years. It’s an uphill battle, there are groups out there for kratom addiction that open your mind. There are thousands of members.”
The Far Too Common Scapegoating of Kratom and the Unknown
There are a number of issues to discuss when it comes to responding to the Beacon’s article and discussing the implications for kava so this analysis will be continued in next week’s kava conversation.
End of Part 1