By "all that," Hunter-Hannan is referring to kratom's precarious legality and the swirl of controversy that has recently surrounded it. Right now kratom is illegal in seven states, and in 2016 the DEA tried unsuccessfully to outlaw it nationwide.
Last November, the FDA signaled intentions to try to do the same. The agency issued a public health advisory that stated in part, "Evidence shows that kratom has similar effects to narcotics like opioids, and carries similar risks of abuse, addiction and in some cases, death." The advisory cited reports of 36 deaths in the U.S. associated with its use and claimed kratom causes seizures, liver damage and withdrawal symptoms. The agency said it was particularly disturbing that kratom was being sold as a safer alternative to opioids and that those addicted to painkillers and harder drugs were using it without doctor supervision as a way to detox. Also, the FDA said, some people use kratom recreationally, just to get high.
No one is more aware of kratom's recent bad press than Palatnik, the owner of CBD Kratom. He's eager to talk to anyone, media included, about his product, which he sees as being seriously misunderstood. Of course he has a lot to lose financially if kratom were to be made illegal, but he seems to believe sincerely in what he sells. He's quick to refer skeptics to websites, news articles and YouTube videos, giving the impression he genuinely thinks that the whole debate over kratom could be cleared up if only the naysayers would bother to do some research.
Palatnik says that kratom's bad rap ultimately boils down to "a lot of politics." The FDA, he says, makes a lot of claims that don't add up with its own records. He's also quick to point out that the FDA itself is largely responsible for the opioid epidemic by failing to keep doctors from over-prescribing painkillers in the first place.
Kratom, he notes, is completely natural. Kratom (scientific name Mitragyna speciosa) technically refers to a tree that is in the same family of plants as coffee and is native to southeast Asia. The leaves of the kratom tree are harvested and ground into the very fine powder Palatnik sells in his store. This powder is not an opiate, but once ingested it activates the same opioid receptors as such drugs, hence the killing of pain and the euphoric effects.
"There is no safety issue with kratom," Palatnik says. "We've been selling it for years, to thousands of people, and we've never had a single customer who has ever said anything bad has happened."
But what about those 36 deaths the FDA attributes to kratom? Is the stuff really killing people? Palatnik says no. "When you look at those cases, they involve other stuff," he says. Palatnik points to the case of a man who died of a heart attack and had kratom in his system. The FDA counted his death among the 36 caused by kratom, ignoring the fact that heroin was in his bloodstream as well.
It should be pointed out the information Palatnik is citing comes from the American Kratom Association, a Colorado-based nonprofit formed in 2014 to increase access to the substance. However, data from Columbia University researchers does show that, while kratom engages the same opioid receptors as drugs like heroin or Oxycontin, unlike those substances kratom does not depress respiration. That's a key difference, medically; according to Mothers against Prescription Drug Abuse, the cause of death from opioid overdose is "almost always" respiratory failure.
Locally, Suzanne McCune with St. Louis County's Office of the Medical Examiner said that she could find no cases of kratom's active ingredient, mitragynine, being included in a recorded cause of death in the past two years. However, it was only very recently that "kratom, designer opioids, fentanyl analogs, bath salts and a host of other chemicals, legal and illegal" became part of a standard toxicology panel in the county. Previously, investigators didn't search for evidence of such substances unless they had special cause to look for it. In January 2017, the office began using a new instrument to provide a more comprehensive analysis that will, as a default, include kratom.
Though Palatnik says he's never heard of a bad kratom experience from a customer, many kratom users have written on erowid.org — a website where users document drug experiences of all types — about its effects, both good and bad. In addition to euphoria and pain relief, users reported increased energy, sociability and empathy. Reported negative side effects tend to be mild: nausea and vomiting, dizziness and chills. However, an analysis of all the kratom-related posts to erowid.org found that one in ten individuals reported some type of negative feeling associated with withdrawal.
Palatnik says many of those negative side effects stem from a lack of education around kratom. He says that's in part why he opened the store in the first place.
Palatnik already owned the Mr. Nice Guy chain of smoke shops in St. Louis when he first encountered kratom three years ago at a trade show. He tried a sample himself, liked it and, after doing some research, decided to start selling it. He noticed that a lot of places in town were also selling Kratom, but nowhere was it a business' primary product. Also, the places offered little education to consumers. They didn't know the differences between strains and couldn't answer customer questions about effects and dosage. That's when Palatnik got the idea to open CBD Kratom, making sure employees undergo a lengthy training so they can recommend to customers what is right for them. He opened his first store in July 2016 in Chicago's Bucktown neighborhood. The Tower Grove location followed in the spring of 2017.
"The education is what I'm really passionate about," Palatnik says. "A lot of smoke shops like Mr. Nice Guy sell kratom, but kratom really should be in a special place where employees are knowledgeable about it and people can get the right service. I think when you educate people they'll be happy to be your customers and stay your customers."
In its statement, the FDA says it is working to "actively prevent" kratom from entering the country and that the agency had "detained hundreds of shipments of kratom." When asked if this posed any risk to keeping his shelves stocked, Palatnik says there was "already a similar enforcement placed on kratom imports, so not much has changed at all recently. We're well stocked as of now and expect to be for the future."
But, he adds, "customers are very scared. They don't want kratom to be taken away from them."