Reactions range from relief to outrage as DEA announces ban on herbal supplement Kratom

SALT LAKE CITY -- The federal government is banning an herbal supplement that some say has saved their lives, while others say the substance is ruining them.

Kratom is sold online as well as at local smoke shops in a pill, powder or liquid form.

Some strains of the herbal supplement can mimic the effects of prescription pain killers, while others give energy like caffeine. At Jeanie’s Smoke Shop in downtown Salt Lake City, customers have been able to buy Kratom for about a year.

“These are the most popular,” said one worker, pointing to bottles filled with 60 pills.

They sell for about a dollar a pill, and Jeanie’s said they’ve built up a niche clientele.

“Businessmen, housewives,” the employee said. “It’s just everyday people trying something new.”

Workers at Jeanie’s have heard the stories. Customers, they said, swear by the herbal supplement and not just for pain management. Some have told them stories of solving serious life problems.

“Heroin addiction, alcoholism, pain, sleep, they don't want to do opiates anymore,” the employee listed off. “And it seems to help.”

On September 30, the store will no longer be able to sell Kratom. The Drug Enforcement Administration announced Wednesday it is outlawing the herbal supplement.

“Doesn't matter if you bought it before or if you bought it after, it's going to be 100 percent illegal,” Sergeant Todd Royce with the Utah Highway Patrol said. “You'll pay the consequences for it.”

The DEA is placing Kratom on the same pedestal as the big-name, Schedule I drugs like heroin, LSD, ecstasy, marijuana and peyote.

The DEA said in the announcement making Kratom a Schedule I drug that it, “is necessary to avoid an imminent hazard to the public safety.”

The DEA cites statistics from the CDC, stating that calls to poison centers involving Kratom jumped tenfold between 2010 and 2015.

The CDC, it said, reported 660 calls in those five years.

"Reports of hepatotoxicity, psychosis, seizure, weight loss, insomnia, tachycardia, vomiting, poor concentration, hallucinations, and death associated with kratom use have been documented," the announcement says.

It also points to a number of reported deaths associated with Kratom.

The announcement later states, “these substances have a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.”

“I was so excited,” said a Salt Lake area mother, who wanted to remain anonymous.

She said the decision is a huge relief after her daughter became addicted to Kratom.

“Her whole thing was, ‘It's not illegal, that there's nothing wrong with it,’” the mother explained.

The woman said that, at one point, she called police when her daughter attacked her. She said the attack came after her daughter tried to quit using Kratom.

For her, it was hard, “Seeing this beautiful young girl turn into this violent young woman," she said.

She said Kratom was the only thing on her daughter’s mind, just like an addict of any other substance. But others have a completely different story.

“I've been able to go back to work, I have been able to play with my children again,” explained Rebekkah Morris, who does website work for a couple of Kratom sites.

She said Kratom has helped manage the pain she experiences from arthritis and severe burn scars. Morris said she knows many in the Kratom community who have recovered from addictions to heroin and prescription drugs because of Kratom.

“I feel like it's saving lives,” she said.

In the end, the DEA’s announcement is giving hope to some, but could prove devastating to others.

The announcement states the placement on the list of Schedule I drugs is temporary, and will last for two years with a possible extension for a third year. The DEA said during that time it will pursue a permanent placement of Kratom on the Schedule I list.