ST. LOUIS, Mo. - Citizens and regulators are butting heads over a centuries-old substance appearing in drug screens of people who are dying. Depending on who you ask, Kratom is either a health risk or a savior.
The DEA was about to classify Kratom a Schedule I narcotic, putting it in the same category as heroin and LSD. Tens of thousands of people protested online and the government ultimately backed down.
Kratom is usually sold in green powder form. It comes from a plant in the coffee family called mitragyna. We're hearing more about it now because many users are saying the herb is saving their lives. Meanwhile, the FDA has called it a possibly addictive and deadly opiate.
Fox 2/KPLR 11 spoke with a man who uses it. He asked we only use his first name, Scott.
"Kratom is more about what it doesn't do," he said. "It doesn't get you high. It doesn't kill people."
What does it do?
"It relieves pain," Scott said. "It helps aid in muscle and joint comfort."
Scott said he's known countless people who have used Kratom to get off of heroin. However, he cautioned that it isn't a magic bullet.
"They have to want to stop because they're not going to get high. A lot of people try it and they're like, well that didn't work because, you know, I don't feel anything," he said. "Well, you're not going to feel anything, except what you're not going to feel is pain."
Entrepreneur David Palatnik sells Kratom at his south St. Louis shop.
"It gave me a very good, focused energy," he said. "So since then, I've taken Kratom from time to time in the morning instead of coffee."
Palatnik said he tests every Kratom strain he sells. He said the powder should not be confused with the wave of synthetic drugs that were sold in other stores and destroyed families.
"People sometimes, by mistake, or associate Kratom with stuff like bath salts, K2, fake weed. Those are just completely different items," he said. "We sell this product for over three years now and we never got anyone that got hurt by it. If it was so bad, I'd have people coming through the doors saying, 'What do you sell here?'"
When the DEA announced possible enforcement, more than 23,000 people publicly commented with statements like, "I was freed from opiate addiction by Kratom. Please do not ruin my life." Another person who identified themselves as a combat veteran wrote, "Kratom has played a miraculous role in dealing with...Insomnia and PTSD."
Dr. Sarah Riley just started gathering hard data on Kratom for the St. Louis County Toxicology Lab.
"Part of my job is to stay aware of what people are using and so I do a lot of sorting, prowling around on social media, and reading forums and just keeping track of what are people using recreationally," she said.
Riley said she added Kratom to her standard test menu after she said someone died from an apparent overdose but tested negative for heroin and other drugs they expect to see in a lab screening. Her lab looked for Kratom--and found it--listed by the chemical name mitragynine.
"This is the last set of tests we're going to do somebody and we need to make sure that we're being very thorough," Riley said.
Since January 1, her lab's tested 190 people who have died and found two more positive Kratom screens. The latest screens showed the overdose victims also using other drugs: fentanyl in one case, meth in the other.
For some added context, Dr. Riley found 32 confirmed heroin cases in those 190 post-mortem tests since January 1, 2018.
"Our average case that comes in is positive for four drugs on average," Riley said. "It's very uncommon these days for people to be taking or using one drug at a time."
Dr. Riley said she hopes her new tests will give solid answers about something few people agree on.
"We just don't know right now if there's a concentration that's toxic or how it can be used with other drugs," she said. "We really don't know."