Kratom Craze Hits Birmingham

By Zachary Siegel 06/11/15

Users are buying small liquid shots of kratom in gas stations, sometimes with devastating effects.

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In Birmingham, Ala., a small liquid shot containing kratom, or Mitragyna speciosa, is being used recreationally for its opiate-like effects.

Sold in gas stations, VivaZen leaves the user “feeling vibrant, healthy and relaxed,” according to the company’s website. “The key to this amazing liquid drink shot is the unique blend of natural herbal dietary ingredients.”

The “herbal dietary ingredient” in question is the natural botanical kratom. Native to Southeast Asia, where people chew the leaves to overcome fatigue, kratom is legal in the United States, though some states have banned the necessary alkaloids to produce it.

While legal, Graham Bufford, the director of a treatment center in Birmingham, told a local news station that, “VivaZen is terrible.” He also said, “[Kratom] is a drug and it does have the same effects as a narcotic would. It can be very habit forming very fast.”

VivaZen wrote to the news station in response to Mr. Bufford’s remarks, “Kratom is not a drug, it’s a plant and VivaZen is non-habit forming if used as directed.”

VivaZen’s spokesperson also mentioned, “Mr. Bufford’s comments about VivaZen are inaccurate and unscientific; misinformed at best.”

The scientific literature is sparse on the subject of kratom. Most research efforts have been forensic, aimed at looking toward effective ways to test for it in urine. There is a 2013 forensic report of interest involving the fatality of a 17-year-old man. The medical examiner labeled the cause of death as “possible kratom toxicity.” The young man also had benzodiazepines in his system post-mortem. 

There was also a 2009 incident in Sweden that left nine people dead where kratom was a suspected cause. Autopsies later confirmed that what led to the fatalities was a synthetic drug called Krypton, which is kratom combined with O-desmethyltramadol, branded under tramadol, an opioid analgesic. 

A forensic report investigating the nine deaths found, “Powdered leaves from kratom contributed to the unintentional death of the nine cases presented and [we] conclude that intake of Krypton is not as harmless as it often is described on Internet websites.”

The rationale for kratom being in this tiny gas-station cocktail sold in Birmingham is to “reduce minor muscle pain following exercise.”

This mild-painkilling effect offered by kratom may indeed be alluring for drug users. Some even use it to counteract withdrawal symptoms when they cannot find their opiate of choice. “I tried some weird brew from a head shop once while I was sick,” said Reid Olson, a former heroin addict, to The Fix. “It allowed me to eat a cheeseburger, but it didn’t do much else.”

He added, “I still felt like shit.”

Another former indulger of kratom who chose to remain anonymous shared his story of buying kratom leaves off of the Internet and becoming addicted.

“I was a heavy user of kratom for around a year or two, starting when I was 20. After a year or so, I was spending too much money on it but couldn't handle the withdrawals cold turkey so I started to taper and drink alcohol every night," he told The Fix. “Kratom made the mess of finding a steady supply of traditional opiates irrelevant for me because it is so easily available online. I loved the amphetamine-like buzz I got with smaller doses and the opiate-like wash I got with higher doses."

“Though I'm doing well now, it still haunts me," he concluded.

Dr. Eric Schieber, a psychiatrist who specializes in treating addiction, confirmed to The Fix the ex-user’s plight and said kratom is "Bad stuff, I have a few patients abusing it."

Furthermore, David Cohen, director of clinical services at Hazelden-Betty Ford in Chicago, has also seen the kratom trend occurring in those seeking treatment. “Usually kids are using it as a primary drug mainly because it’s sold over-the-counter,” Cohen said.

Cohen also mentioned that because it is so accessible, “more advanced users” also indulge in kratom, but anecdotally, he sees them using it in combination with other drugs.

Tolerance and withdrawal are recognized as the hallmarks of physical dependence, and kratom users indeed report feeling both. The withdrawal symptoms brought on by the natural botanical are almost identical to other opiates like heroin: mood swings, runny nose, and achy, jerky muscles.

Kratom is often referred to as a “legal high,” much like synthetic cannabinoids such as Spice once were. After having been linked to fatalities and psychosis, Spice is now a Schedule I narcotic under the Controlled Substances Act.

As of now, kratom is on the DEA’s list of Drugs and Chemicals of Concern. It’s possible that drinks like VivaZen and other kratom products will meet a similar fate as synthetic cannabinoids.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.