A new herbal stimulant offers Gainesville residents energy, a social community and an alternative to alcohol — but like the opiates it's associated with, the supplement faces controversy.
Commonly known as kratom, Mitragyna speciosa is a plant typically grown in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and is used as a pain reliever and energy stimulant. The plant is normally ingested orally and sold as a tea, a powder or a gel capsule.
The substance is still relatively new in the United States but has become increasingly more popular and controversial in recent years. About two in every 300 people use kratom, according to an American Journal of Preventive Medicine study.
Commonly marketed as an herbal supplement, kratom affects the same opioid receptors as morphine and can be addictive for users — but it is not an opioid. Kratom can be lethal when mixed with other substances such as fentanyl and heroin. Approximately 80 percent of kratom-involved deaths involve a history of substance abuse, according to a Centers for Disease Control study.
Those supporting kratom say it can relieve pain, depression and opioid addiction.
As a result, six states banned kratom, eight others passed laws regulating it and more local governments are passing legislation banning the substance.
In Florida, HB 179 went into effect July 1, prohibiting the sale of kratom to people under 21, among other regulations.
Mccade Moonshower, a 23-year-old Gainesville resident, has worked for Kava Gator, a coffee and botanical tea shop, for about a year. Among other herbal supplements, kratom is popular with cafe customers.
Customers have the option of choosing one of the different color strains, with each offering distinct effects.
“White is flight, red is bed, green is in between,” Moonshower said. “[Yellow] is going to be white and green mixed, so it’s going to be a little bit more energy but still that mood booster in the middle.”
The age range of customers varies widely; however, many customers are students, Moonshower said. Students use the plant to study without stress, he said.
“They want to study but still be in a mind frame of being at ease,” Moonshower said. “So, as it is an alcohol substitute, they feel as though they're still getting that relaxation without dealing with the negative effects of alcohol, which would be very distracting.”
However, Moonshower felt people still needed to be careful with how they approached the plant.
“I would say some disclaimers is not to drink too far after or too soon after or right before drinking alcohol,” Moonshower said. “It does impact the liver, so we always tell people, ‘‘Be aware of your body and let your body stop drinking.’”
Kratom can put users at risk of psychological withdrawals and dependence, according to a Pain Medicine study. Kratom does not appear on standard drug tests and is often used to self-medicate.
“Users self-medicate with kratom mainly for its opioid-like effects, stimulant-like effects and antidepressant effects,” according to the study.
Kratom customers also found a community around the plant despite the risks.
Paul Kahrs, a 23-year-old Gainesville resident, and Madeleine Raab, a 26-year-old Gainesville resident, frequently drink kratom at Mai Kai Kava Bar. They usually hang out and talk there after work, sometimes until closing.
For Kahrs and Raab, kratom became a healthier social drink than alcohol. Raab usually drinks the red strain, which she said does not have a hangover, calms her down and lets her still function normally.
While Raab has met people addicted to the drink, she said she’s never felt a physical urge to keep taking it.
“I’ll go weeks without drinking kratom, and it's not like I have cravings or really want it, but I think people have really, really, really heavy addictive tendencies,” she said.
Raab believes people who struggle with alcohol abuse should consider waning off drinking via kratom.
For Kahrs, kratom provides a safer, more comfortable substance environment than drinking.
“I pretty much don’t drink alcohol,” Kahrs said. “I’ll drink kratom, and it kinda takes that role, where like, you go to a social area, community. And it’s like, instead of drinking, you get a kratom.”
Contact Gabriel Velasquez Neira at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @gvelasquezn.
Gabriel Velasquez Neira is a second-year Journalism major, and the Audio Editor and Metro GA Reporter. In his free time, he enjoys sleeping, taking photos and playing guitar.