Release the Kratom: Inside America's Hottest New Drug Culture
Many use kratom to quit opioids; others just want to get high. There's a push to regulate the plant-derived drug—but experts disagree on its safety.
By her mid-20s, Faith Day was out of jail but homeless. She was also addicted to a substance now too legally compromising to name. When she tried to quit, she couldn’t afford the medication to manage the withdrawal symptoms. She looked to the internet for answers. News about a plant called kratom kept popping up in her social media feeds, alongside claims that consuming it would help her break free of addiction. Desperate, she used her last $140—money that would have otherwise gone to the destructive drug—on an ounce she found at a head shop.
Two weeks later, she was off the drug. She has not relapsed since. Now, Day devotes her life and career to kratom. She’s no back-alley pusher—her goal is get kratom out of head shops, gas stations, and dark street corners and into the safe, legal light of day.
By some scientists’ count, there are between 10 million and 15 million kratom users in the US alone. They are using the drug for everything from chronic pain relief to replacement for their morning coffee. It is not an illicit substance; unless you live in one of the six states where kratom possession is criminalized, or are part of the US Army or Navy, which also banned the drug, kratom capsules, extracts, and teas are legal to buy and sell.
Day’s is one of only two kratom businesses licensed by the Department of Agriculture in the entire country. If you ignored the sign, her Oregon storefront, Clean Kratom Portland, could be a coffee shop or a trendy marijuana dispensary. The air is sweet and spicy with incense, the walls bright white and pale green, the plants plentiful, the bar wood, and the binders of lab tests numerous. Day greeted me at the door, along with a giant, exuberant husky named Max. She is wearing a long cardigan and a careful smile. Every visible expanse of skin is tattooed—hands, chest, neck, face. As they travel upward, the tattoos turn from birds and dots to the structural formulas of chemical compounds found in kratom. The arc of hexagons above her left eyebrow is speciogynine, thought to be a smooth muscle relaxer. She credits it with stopping awful withdrawal convulsions.
Day started her kratom business in Denver, and she’s in Portland for one reason only: Google Trends. Of all the people in the US, it’s Portlanders who search for kratom the most per capita. It’s hard to say why that might be—the reasons people give for using kratom vary widely. It’s equally fruitless to try to stereotype an average American kratom user. Many are trying to quit opioids or alcohol. Others are trying to manage chronic pain, improve their eyesight, clear up their skin, boost their immune systems, or just have fun and get high. “A third of our clientele are looking for a caffeine-free alternative to get them through their day,” Day says. “I’m talking soccer moms.”
The image of wealthy moms slurping kratom tea in lieu of a cappuccino, or trendy Bay Area residents popping kratom pills socially just for its mild, mellow body high, cuts strangely against the dire tone of most government reports on kratom.
Just about the only thing everyone agrees on is that kratom is a plant, a tropical evergreen tree that grows wild in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Papua New Guinea. It’s a relative of the coffee tree. Within its native range, it’s been used for centuries (at least) as an herbal remedy, especially among day laborers who would chew the leaves for a mild stimulant effect. At the end of a hard day’s work, people might then brew the leaves into a tea, extracting different compounds purported to have a calming and pain-relieving effect.
It’s still used that way in Southeast Asia. According to Darshan Singh, a researcher at the University of Science, Malaysia’s Center for Drug Research, contemporary Malaysian kratom users fall into four categories: old folks practicing traditional medicine, manual laborers, people trying to get off opioids, and people who use kratom in lieu of other illicit drugs, sometimes mixed with cough syrup. (He notes that all categories do tend to share a gender. “Due to societal discrimation,” he says, “kratom use among females is not widespread.”) So far, there have been no kratom-linked deaths in Malaysia, despite its long history and ubiquity. “It is seen that kratom use has become [more of] a major issue in the US than in its local context in Southeast Asia,” Singh says. In Thailand, kratom is on the brink of total legalization.