Release the Kratom: Inside America's Hottest New Drug Culture

By her mid-20s, Faith Day was out of jail but homeless. She was also addicted to a substance now too legally compromising to name. When she tried to quit, she couldn’t afford the medication to manage the withdrawal symptoms. She looked to the internet for answers. News about a plant called kratom kept popping up in her social media feeds, alongside claims that consuming it would help her break free of addiction. Desperate, she used her last $140—money that would have otherwise gone to the destructive drug—on an ounce she found at a head shop.

Two weeks later, she was off the drug. She has not relapsed since. Now, Day devotes her life and career to kratom. She’s no back-alley pusher—her goal is get kratom out of head shops, gas stations, and dark street corners and into the safe, legal light of day.

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By some scientists’ count, there are between 10 million and 15 million kratom users in the US alone. They are using the drug for everything from chronic pain relief to replacement for their morning coffee. It is not an illicit substance; unless you live in one of the six states where kratom possession is criminalized, or are part of the US Army or Navy, which also banned the drug, kratom capsules, extracts, and teas are legal to buy and sell. However, after finding kratom in the systems of dozens of people who have died of drug overdoses, the federal government has been considering a total ban. It warns consumers of potential opioid-like effects, though scientists have questioned the FDA’s methodology in coming to that conclusion. Some people, like Day, will tell you kratom saved their lives. Others ask her if she’s selling “legal heroin.”Day’s is one of only two kratom businesses licensed by the Department of Agriculture in the entire country. If you ignored the sign, her Oregon storefront, Clean Kratom Portland, could be a coffee shop or a trendy marijuana dispensary. The air is sweet and spicy with incense, the walls bright white and pale green, the plants plentiful, the bar wood, and the binders of lab tests numerous. Day greeted me at the door, along with a giant, exuberant husky named Max. She is wearing a long cardigan and a careful smile. Every visible expanse of skin is tattooed—hands, chest, neck, face. As they travel upward, the tattoos turn from birds and dots to the structural formulas of chemical compounds found in kratom. The arc of hexagons above her left eyebrow is speciogynine, thought to be a smooth muscle relaxer. She credits it with stopping awful withdrawal convulsions.
Day started her kratom business in Denver, and she’s in Portland for one reason only: Google Trends. Of all the people in the US, it’s Portlanders who search for kratom the most per capita. It’s hard to say why that might be—the reasons people give for using kratom vary widely. It’s equally fruitless to try to stereotype an average American kratom user. Many are trying to quit opioids or alcohol. Others are trying to manage chronic pain, improve their eyesight, clear up their skin, boost their immune systems, or just have fun and get high. “A third of our clientele are looking for a caffeine-free alternative to get them through their day,” Day says. “I’m talking soccer moms.”
The image of wealthy moms slurping kratom tea in lieu of a cappuccino, or trendy Bay Area residents popping kratom pills socially just for its mild, mellow body high, cuts strangely against the dire tone of most government reports on kratom. The US Food and Drug Administration warns consumers to avoid kratom, noting that it appears to affect “the same opioid brain receptors as morphine” and may come with the same risks of dependence. The CDC has reported 91 kratom-involved overdose deaths and found the drug in the systems of 61 other overdose deaths.