Warning issued for herb kratom; DEA announces plan for ban

DENVER -- The Denver Department of Environmental Heath issued a consumer safety advisory Tuesday regarding the use of kratom products.

Kratom is an herbal substance made from the leaf of a tree grown in Southeast Asia.

It’s sometimes marketed as an air freshener of sorts, or potpourri. But it has been sold in Denver and other parts of the country for consumption.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has announced plans to reclassify kratom as a Schedule I drug, in the Controlled Substance Act, putting it on par with drugs such as LSD or heroin. The ban would take effect sometime after Sept. 30.

A shop off Broadway, Rocky Mountain Kratom, was closed Tuesday. Kratom user Kris Hackenberry was disappointed with the closure. He said he uses a powder form of kratom to ease back pain.

“It takes the edge off, and it gives me a little bit of energy,” he said.

He said it was a recommendation from a friend.

“I know it's been used successfully to get one of my best friends off opiate addiction,” he said. “That's actually how I heard about it.”

Hackenberry said kratom is an alternative to prescription drugs, known for its opioid-like effects.

“Kratom products can come in a variety of different forms, everything from crushed leaves to drinks,” said Danica Lee, the director of public health inspections for the Denver Department of Environmental Health.

Lee said kratom is sold in Denver at certain bars, head shops and gas stations for consumption.

“There are some businesses locally that seem to market themselves as bars, if you will, that sell these products and I think there’s also a number of head shops and gas stations that sell these types of products,” she said.

“And that’s actually something that we’re still in the process of investigating, where all these products are sold and how they’re distributed here locally.”

Lee said the department is cracking down in light of the announcement by the DEA. They issued hold orders and collected the inventory of at least four area businesses.

“There is a decision that's coming down that these products pose an imminent health hazard, and so that puts us in a realm where we would not be comfortable letting these products stay out on the market,” Lee said.

“Our agency has taken proactive action to address products in Denver’s market under the broad authority of our local health department.”

The DEA said health risks associated with kratom include psychoses, seizure, insomnia, hallucinations and death.

“This December will be three years since he passed away,” Joy Atencio said of her son, 36-year-old Guy Garcia, who she said died of a kratom overdose. “As fast as he became addicted, to me it was like heroin or crack or meth."

Atencia said Garcia was a loving father, a great son and a beloved friend to many in the Denver area.

She said Garcia took kratom to help deal with stress. It was nearly three years ago that he collapsed midseizure at his parents' Denver home and never regained consciousness.

“That's what the coroner attributed his death to -- an overdose of kratom,” she said.

On Garcia’s death certificate, the coroner listed the cause of death as “acute mitragynine toxicity.” Mytragynine is one of the main active constituents of the plant Mitragyna speciosa Korth, commonly known as kratom.

Antecia said it’s about time the DEA stepped in and took action against kratom.

“You read all these things online it's, ‘Oh kratom's the most wonderful thing in the world, it makes you feel good,’” she said. “People say over and over ‘It can`t kill you.’ It killed him. We have him no more because of that.”

The DEA said it is aware of 15 deaths related to kratom from 2014 to 2016.

Still, the American Kratom Association has issued a call to action in an attempt to fight the ban.

“This is a very tragic situation for us," AKA spokeswoman Susan Ash said in a statement. "The AKA is fielding thousands of calls, Facebook messages and e-mails from people all over the country afraid of going back to pharmaceutical drugs that had unbearable negative side effects for them, or illicit drugs which will lead to even more deaths during this opiate epidemic.

"People, including a large number of U.S. Veterans using Kratom to help with PTSD, are telling us they are terrified of losing their lives or their quality of lives. We're also fielding messages from people who have never been addicted to anything but who chose kratom as a safer, natural alternative to prescription drugs. These people feel they will no longer be able to be the productive members of society Kratom has enabled them to be.”

Atencia said her son was an organ donor who saved five lives. She hopes to reach other users who might not know the potential consequences.

“Stop,” she said, addressing current users. “That’s what I would say, stop. It is not safe. It is not good.”