Tom Meyer, WKYC-TV, Cleveland
(USA Today) CLEVELAND - This drug is potentially addictive, but you can walk right into a store in a city or suburb and buy it over the counter.
Parents probably haven't heard of it yet - and so far, it's not illegal to sell it if you are calling it a tea, as head shops are. But some also are pitching it as a drug, which is illegal. The state of Indiana has banned its use.
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Either way, the drug called kratom - pronounced kray-tum - is on law enforcement's radar.
Online, kratom has created a buzz with young men recording YouTube testimonials while they are high on it.
"Kratom is what they refer to in the medical community as an opiate with a roof where you can only get so high," one of them says, slurring his words.
Kratom is a tropical tree in the coffee family that's native to Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar and other areas of Southeast Asia. In this country its leaves are sold as a pill or as a powder to stir into a beverage.
In small doses, it acts as a stimulant. In higher doses, it becomes a sedative, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
The Ohio Attorney General Office's crime lab is constantly on the watch for this drug that has been used in Thailand for decades. Just last month, eight people in central Ohio were indicted for running a large-scale drug operation, which included the sale of kratom.
"It is illegal in Ohio to take it and sell it as a drug," says Jonathan Fulkerson, deputy chief counsel for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.
While kratom is on a federal watch list, it is widely available online and in a number of head shops in this area.
One WKYC-TV producer bought a bag of 30 pills for $30 at the Twilight Boutique in suburban Lakewood, Ohio, after the clerk told him the pills could relieve pain and help induce sleep.
"He said it was one of those things where he used it for arthritis," the producer said. "He said it helped remove the pain."
Kratom is not approved for any medical purpose in the U.S. - including as a pain reliever - Fulkerson said.
In Thailand, those who use it infuse the leaves into tea or chew them to act as a stimulant and relieve muscle strain, according to the DEA. In the U.S., some prescription drug users trying to mitigate the effects of withdrawal from opiate pain relievers such as OxyContin or Vicodin discovered it as authorities started to crack down on prescription drug abuse.
The owner of the Twilight Boutique, Dale Drummond, said later that he had no idea his employees were selling kratom as a drug.
"I will definitely look into it," he said in another visit to his store. "I am not aware we were selling it. It's an all-natural tea extract."
Drummond is facing trial in May on charges that he and others distributed synthetic drugs that were designed to mimic marijuana. He said he stopped offering kratom when he learned about other people getting in trouble for selling it.
"There are stores getting busted for it," Drummond said. "I don't want legal stuff (issues), so I pulled it off the shelves till I get more answers."
At another head shop we were told to leave, and the owner never returned our calls.
Little research has been done on kratom's safety. The DEA reports long-term use producing weight loss, anorexia, insomnia, skin darkening, dry mouth, frequent urination and constipation. Withdrawal can result in hostility, aggression, a runny nose, achy muscles and bones and jerky movement of the limbs.
At least one pharmaceutical company looked into using kratom as an analgesic in the 1960s but decided against it, Professor Edward Boyer of the University of Massachusetts Medical School told Scientific American magazine last year. A man in one of his case studies switched from the opioid Dilaudid to using kratom, spending $15,000 on it in one year.
In severe cases, those addicted experienced hallucinations, delusion and confusion, the DEA said.
People who have used it have shown up in emergency rooms with those symptoms. One had a seizure when he combined kratom with another stimulant.
"Kratom is on our radar for the reasons it's on the DEA's radar," Fulkerson said. "It's a drug of concern."
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