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The readily available herbal supplement Kratom is facing wrongful death lawsuits

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A raft of wrongful death lawsuits has been brought against vendors of kratom, an herbal supplement that can act like an opiate on the human body. It's sold at gas stations and vape shops and bars. And as Peter Haden reports from southern Florida, experts and officials disagree over just what it is and how it ought to be regulated.

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PETER HADEN, BYLINE: Kavasutra is a dimly lit bar in Lantana, Florida, where there's no beer, only non-alcoholic botanical drinks. And with the patrons here this Friday night, there's one drink that's clearly winning out - jumbo plastic cups filled with icy kratom tea.

ASH TURNER: It relaxes you. I feel like being more social and open.

NIKO WESTLEY: I do feel like I'm more focused. I'm more on point.

CARLEE PALERMO: It completely took away my back pain.

HADEN: Ash Turner, Niko Westley and Carlee Palermo are among millions of Americans that regularly use kratom, an herbal product derived from the dried leaves of a tree in the coffee family. It's native to Southeast Asia, where it's been used for centuries as a folk medicine. At low doses, users say it relieves pain, anxiety and symptoms of opioid withdrawal. But at higher doses, it can produce a euphoric state like an opioid and has been linked to its own addiction, seizures and death. The customers that Kavasutra tonight tell me they are not aware of anyone who has been harmed by kratom. And Carlee Palermo tells me that many of the people who come to the bar are in recovery from substance abuse.

Do you think kratom aids in that?

PALERMO: 100%.

HADEN: But it hasn't helped everybody.

CINDY ROSS: When you lose your child, it isn't anything that you have ever prepared for in life - nothing.

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HADEN: I meet Cindy Ross at a South Florida marina with a fountain in December 2021. Her 30-year-old son Max was excited, about to start a new job as a sous chef. He went to the mall with a friend to get the right shoes he needed to work in the kitchen. A few hours later, Cindy got a call from her ex-husband.

ROSS: He said, who are you with? I said, I'm with my sisters. He said, I need to tell you that Max is dead.

HADEN: Max had collapsed while walking home. He'd had a few beers at the mall and, at some point, a significant amount of kratom, possibly as a concentrated extract. The medical examiner determined that the combination killed him. Cindy Ross and thousands of other Americans are calling for increased government regulation of kratom, especially labeling and guidance on how to use it safely.

ROSS: You know what? I believe them that people are taking it and it helps with their pain. I believe it that it's helping them, their anxiety. OK. What's the dosage, and what do you advise them not to interact with?

HADEN: Thirty-nine-year-old Krystal Talavera lived in the next town over. She was a nurse and a mother of four. According to a lawsuit, on Father's Day 2021, her fiance woke to find her lying facedown on the floor unconscious, lying beside her, a cup of hot coffee and an open packet of powder - a blank bag, except for the words space dust scrawled in black marker. It was a concentrated kratom extract. She'd ordered it off the internet from a company in Idaho. The medical examiner determined acute kratom intoxication was the sole cause of Krystal Talavera's death. In May, a federal judge ordered the vendor to pay more than $4.6 million in damages to her family.

Matt Wetherington is an attorney in Atlanta. He's not representing the Talavera family, but his firm is partnering on dozens of other similar wrongful death lawsuits that accuse vendors of selling a dangerous product without proper warnings and instructions.

MATT WETHERINGTON: When you're selling a drug next to Skittles or energy drinks, you have no means of knowing that you're dealing with something that is exponentially more dangerous than anything else on the shelf.

HADEN: The Food and Drug Administration warns Americans not to use kratom, saying it stimulates the same brain receptors as morphine and could be addictive. But the agency doesn't regulate the product or classify it as a drug, rather as a dietary supplement. That leaves consumers to guess at the makeup of the myriad powders, capsules and concentrates flooding the market and how to use them safely. The FDA declined to be interviewed for this story.

MAC HADDOW: The case in Florida was egregious. They had nothing on it other - it's called space dust. It's the poster child for why regulations need to be put into effect.

HADEN: Mac Haddow is a lobbyist with the American Kratom Association. The group states it advocates for the rights of Americans to legally consume safe kratom. According to the association, kratom is billion-dollar business in the U.S., with vendors importing more than 2,000 tons of the herb into the country every month. The group is asking for the government to come in and regulate its product so long as they regulate it as a legal, over-the-counter supplement, not a drug. The association is pushing states and the federal government to pass its own recommended legislation.

CHRISTOPHER MCCURDY: It really brings to bear the question in the marketplace, you know, what is safe? What isn't safe?

HADEN: Dr. Christopher McCurdy is a medicinal chemist at the University of Florida. He's been studying kratom for nearly 20 years, supported by millions in grant funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. He says the plant shows tremendous medicinal potential, interacting with novel combinations of brain receptors and systems in what he calls...

MCCURDY: A complex symphony orchestra.

HADEN: But a fresh leaf plucked and chewed by an Indonesian farmer is vastly different from the concentrated kratom extracts American companies are squeezing out. And McCurdy says there's at least one good reason why there's no usage guidance on those products. No one knows what it should be.

MCCURDY: There's just a ton more science that needs to be done.

HADEN: McCurdy acknowledges the need for oversight in what he calls a Wild West marketplace. Nearly a dozen states have passed legislation to regulate kratom. Five states have banned the product.

For NPR News, I'm Peter Haden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Peter Haden
Peter Haden is an award-winning investigative reporter and photographer currently working with The Center for Investigative Reporting. His stories are featured in media outlets around the world including NPR, CNN en Español, ECTV Ukraine, USA Today, Qatar Gulf Times, and the Malaysia Star.