The Lucky Kwik Stop looks like any other convenience store. Tucked in amid the low-slung buildings in the Linda Vista Plaza at the corner of Liberty Street and Fairview Avenue, customers pop into the shop for smokes, a cold drink or any of the other sundry items like lighters, vape products and novelties that fill its shelves.
In a glass case fronting the cigarettes are rows of packages, tea bags and tincture bottles containing a substance the Drug Enforcement Administration will soon list as Schedule I—alongside LSD, marijuana, ecstasy and heroin.
For Marcus Zimmerman, who manages the Kwik Stop with his mother, the impending listing of kratom, set for Friday, Sept. 30, is bad news.
"It's really the only thing that keeps us open at the moment, so it will definitely impact us," he said. "It takes up most of our business, that's what our business works around."
That's no exaggeration: Zimmerman estimated sales of kratom, whether in powder, pill, liquid or tea form, account for 90 percent of the store's income. On its website, the shop boasts the largest kratom selection in the Treasure Valley.
"Everything else is snacks, knick knacks or drinks," he said.
Kratom is a tropical tree indigenous to Southeast Asia and known to science as Mitragyna speciosa. Its leaves are crushed and dehydrated for dissolution in juices or teas, packed into capsules, rendered into liquids or gums, and—in unadvised instances—smoked for its alternately sedative and stimulant effects. Use of kratom (pronounced kray-DUM) has been documented in Thailand and surrounding countries for centuries. The herb also goes by the names biak, kakuam, ketum, thang and thorn. At low doses, kratom produces a buzz likened to caffeine—the plant is related to the coffee tree—while higher doses yield a sedative effect that provides pain relief, euphoria and drowsiness. It has been used to fight fatigue, depression, insomnia, even opioid addiction.
The secret to its popularity lies with a pair of alkaloids that affect areas of the brain that also respond to opioids—specifically, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine, which the Journal of the American Chemical Society described in a May 2016 paper as representing "a novel framework ... which may exhibit improved therapeutic profiles."
In other words, kratom acts like an opioid but isn't an opioid, and shows some potential for being useful in treating opioid withdrawal. Still, the DEA has declared it an "imminent hazard to the public safety," requiring a two-year emergency Schedule I listing that would expire unless the administration takes action to the contrary. The announcement, which was delivered in a letter of intent dated Aug. 25, has left both users and distributors reeling and, to no small degree, befuddled.
"I was given notice two months ago that kratom was going to be looked at in five years. Then I get this one-month notice that it's going to be scheduled," said LeRoy Cheyney, a traditional Native American healer and owner of the WellBeing Holistic Health Co-Op, located in the same plaza as Lucky Kwik Stop. "This totally blindsided me."
Cheyney, who personally uses kratom to alleviate insomnia, works at the Kwik Stop in the evenings to consult with customers interested in trying the herb to lessen pain, fight depression or, like him, get a good night's sleep. Sometimes, he'll refer them to his suite of practices down the sidewalk, which run the gamut from hypnotherapy and massage, to reiki, sound and psychic healing, cupping, nutrition and meditation.
Noting its opioid-like effects, Cheyney underscored kratom's use as a way for addicts of heroin or prescription pills to wean themselves without resorting to methadone or similar drugs.
"As individuals realized they could get themselves off opiates, it blew up," he said.
Zimmerman agreed that kratom has experienced a surge in popularity—particularly over the past year, as rumors of the ban began circulating among the many websites and online groups that share information and testimonials about kratom.
"Just the other day this older veteran gentleman came in and he just found out about it because of the ban," Zimmerman said. "He was only able to sleep two hours a night because of his back pain. He's been taking kratom for about a week now and he's had perfect sleep every single night because of it. A lot of our customers have admitted to being heroin addicts before. A lot of kids, like 20- to 21-year-olds that have already had back injuries, they need it because they don't want to be stuck on oxy. It's helped so many people, all of our customers, every single one of them."
The DEA begs to differ that kratom is a panacea. In its 2015 "Drugs of Abuse" listing, kratom is described as potentially leading to "psychotic symptoms and psychological addiction" including "hallucinations, delusions and confusion" as well as "nausea, itching, sweating, dry mouth, constipation, increased urination and loss of appetite."
"There is no legitimate medical use for kratom in the United States," the administration wrote.
More dire, the August letter of intent referenced 15 deaths said to have occurred in the U.S. related to kratom exposure from 2014-2016, as well as a rash of deaths in Sweden between 2009 and 2010 after users took "Krypton" kratom.
Kratom advocates push back at those statistics. First, none of the reported 15 deaths could be attributed to kratom alone, with nearly 65 percent of all poison control calls related to kratom including use of the substance with other drugs like alcohol, acetaminophen, benzodiazepines and narcotics of varying type. As for the deaths in Sweden, "Krypton" might go under the kratom moniker, but its association with the herb ends at the name.
According to kratomonline.org, "Krypton" is actually a blend of caffeine and O-desmethyltramadol, a synthetic opioid. Taking 0.5 grams of Krypton is said to be the equivalent of 60 grams of morphine. A 2011 report in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology similarly concluded Krypton was heavily spiked with O-desmethyltramadol.
"This is an instantly, dangerously addictive substance," the kratomonline.org warning stated. "[D]isingenuous marketers have tried to pull a fast one on the public by using the kratom name on a product that is not kratom."
Members of the message board bluelight.org who used Krypton reported terrifying results.
"This so-called Kratom, I feel, has much more potential for addiction than smack," wrote one user who admitted to have been ingesting the drug continuously for 20 hours. "This shit is one way to get Kratom banned outright."
That the DEA would use 15 deaths over a two-year period, as well as the dubious kratom connection in the Swedish overdoses, to justify its emergency listing doesn't smell right to Dan Landis, a Boise private investigator who has been using kratom to treat his back pain for three years (though he had to overcome an initial skepticism about kratom as "voodoo medicine"). What's worse, he said, is the speed with which the feds are moving—announcing in their letter of intent that because DEA was taking the action as a "temporary scheduling," it would not be considered a "rule" as defined by U.S. code and therefore not subject to public comment:
"[T]he Administrator finds that there is good cause to forgo the notice and comment requirements ... as any further delays in the process ... would be impracticable and contrary to the public interest in view of the manifest urgency to avoid an imminent hazard to the public safety."
"It sounds suspect, doesn't it?" Landis said. "It has been abrupt. If you start probing, you'll find that a lot of the lobbyists have gone and spoken to the politicians and said this is a problem. ... There's a lot of money involved with this—law enforcement, the pharmaceuticals, the insurance companies. Everybody's pockets can be lined by banning this substance. It's really all about financial gain for the pharmaceutical industries."
Researchers at the University of Massachusetts did file a patent application in 2010 for a kratom extract to treat opioid withdrawal, and the DEA's letter of intent referenced 660 calls to the National Poison Data System related to kratom from January 2010 through December 2015. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 14,000 people died from overdoses involving prescription opioids in 2014 alone.
"I would like to see individuals get off of OxyContin, get off of Percocet, and start to go toward this particular substance, which has zero side effects and is just as effective," said Landis, who recently assisted the American Kratom Association with data investigation that helped stymie a ban in Georgia. "Fifteen deaths in two years, they say, related to kratom? That's a little ridiculous to go out and put an emergency ban in effect."
The DEA reported the equivalent of more than 12 million doses of kratom were either seized or are being held pending an admissibility ruling from the Food and Drug Administration between February 2014 and July 2016, and anecdotal evidence suggests it is growing in popularity nationwide. If it constitutes a public health emergency, it hasn't made much of a mark on Boise.
"We haven't heard that much about it from our patient base," said Brant Massman, who co-founded the national Center for Behavioral Health in 1983, specializing in the treatment of opioid addiction. The
company operates the Idaho Center for Behavioral Health with offices in Boise, Caldwell and Mountain Home.
- Kesey Hawes
Boise Police Officer Casey Hancuff, who works as a drug recognition expert, agreed that kratom doesn't cut much of a profile among the other narcotics the department deals with. When it has come to the attention of police, it's usually in conjunction with another substance.
"Any drug that has the potential for abuse, which kratom does, eventually gets on our radar through impaired driving or just people overdosing," he said, describing that early stages of excessive kratom use will present with heart palpitations, while later stages involve trouble staying conscious and low blood pressure.
"The biggest problem I know with kratom is when it's mixed with other drugs," Hancuff added. "Some over-the-counter drugs and prescription drugs do not interact [well] at all with kratom. That's where the deaths have come from."
True opioids are what keep Boise law enforcement officers up at night. Noting Sept. 19-23 is National Heroin and Opioid Awareness Week, U.S. Attorney for the District of Idaho Wendy Olson issued a news release pointing out Idaho ranks fourth in the nation for non-medical prescription painkiller use among individuals over the age of 12. The U.S., meanwhile, accounts for nearly 100 percent of the world demand for hydrocodone and 81 percent for oxycodone.
"As I meet with law enforcement ... around the state, I hear what they see: an increase in heroin use, abuse and availability," Olson wrote. "Prescription painkillers are simply synthetic heroin."
Stacked up against the opioid epidemic, Hancuff said kratom amounts to pretty small potatoes.
"[Kratom] is obviously present in Boise, but it's not one of the biggest problems we see here in town," he said. "Our biggest problem right now is in the opiate world. And if you think about imminent problems with health, that's a big deal."
Assuming the Sept. 30 kratom ban goes into effect—though a whitehouse.gov petition to stall the Schedule I listing has received nearly 132,000 signatures of the 100,000 needed—Boise police will begin treating the herb as they would marijuana. Possession of small amounts would be a misdemeanor. Larger quantities could add up to the level of delivery or trafficking, which would rise to potential federal charges.
Zimmerman said he's worried about post-ban enforcement—whether his store and others like it could be raided. To avoid that possibility, he said Lucky Kwik Stop is liquidating its supply by Sunday, Sept. 25.
"I'm worried that they'll take this out of proportion," Zimmerman said. "We will be doing what the law says; we're not going to try to push this. We'll be getting rid of it before the deadline."
According to Hancuff, Zimmerman and other kratom retailers probably don't have to worry about such high-handed tactics.
"I don't see them sending out a bunch of undercover officers to go put stings on smoke shops," he said. "It's possible, but I think we have bigger fish to fry, honestly."
Ironically, the kratom ban may serve to make those fish even bigger. Hancuff said kratom users trying to fight opioid addiction will face a stark choice following the Schedule I listing.
"They're going to have to find more kratom or jump to heroin, and that's going to be the problem," he said. "It's going to push people into opiates. It's frightening. I think there will be a downside, I truly do."
Landis also fears the ban will backfire.
"People will turn to hard opiates and heroin if they can't get kratom," he said.