My Gas Station, My Drug Dealer

For some, kratom was a miracle drug, helping them escape their addiction. For others, kratom became their addiction.
Published: Aug. 24, 2023 at 6:31 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Amy says she has an addiction. A bank-draining, gotta-have-it-or-else addiction.

It’s called kratom (pronounced kră-tum), a product that is derived from a tree in Southeast Asia that, when ingested, can produce anything from a burst of energy to a type of short-term ecstasy.

Kratom takes on many forms, from pills to powders to brown-ish liquid inside tiny plastic bottles, all of which can usually be found inside large glass containers at gas stations across the country. It’s largely legal, except in a few states, yet not FDA-approved, which is why it’s sold predominantly at convenience stores as well as vape and CBD shops.

As well as the recreational pleasure it can provide its user, those who take it also report other effects, such as easing the discomfort brought on by drug withdrawals and aiding in pain relief. This is why it was once heralded as “a gas station drug that could end the opioid crisis.”

Kratom, as Amy knows all too well, can also be addictive.

A glass case inside a Rankin County gas station showcases a number of kratom products.
A glass case inside a Rankin County gas station showcases a number of kratom products.(WLBT)

I first met Amy at a coffee shop in May. She is a middle-aged mother with pale green eyes and manicured nails. It was there that Amy, who did not want her real name used in this article, spoke of her addiction. She told me it began innocently enough, just by one day picking up some kratom pills at the convenience store in which she worked.

She described the high that followed as 30-minutes of euphoria that mirrored the one brought on by pain pills.

Amy knew this feeling well, since she was a recovering pill-addict. “Just thinking about it makes me shake,” she said as she described this initial encounter with kratom. “In my mind I thought, Oh, I can have the same feeling, but it’s not a drug, it’s not addicting.

It took one week for her to become a full-blown kratom addict, she says, this time replacing pain medication for the Asian plant. “If I could go 24 hours [without taking kratom], I felt like I had accomplished something.”

Her addiction has now lasted eight years. In the beginning, she was taking kratom pills. That then evolved to kratom shots or “K shots”; tiny bottles of kratom extract that bear a striking resemblance to energy shots.

As she spoke, she pulled a small kratom bottle from her purse and opened the lid. With her nail, she pierced the silver seal, revealing the liquid inside; liquid that Amy describes as tasting like “spoiled milk and dirt.” But yet, she takes it.

Her brand of choice, O.P.M.S., an “industry-leading” supplier of kratom extract, has recently been named in a class action lawsuit for failing to warn consumers of what the lawsuit calls the “perniciously addictive” nature of its kratom powders, capsules and liquid extracts.

Their liquid extract is not cheap, averaging around $15 to $20 per bottle. Amy takes four of them a day.

O.P.M.S. says that their products are not intended for daily use. They also warn that their products are “multiple times greater than that of raw kratom leaf.” On their website they write in bold letters: This product has not been deemed fit for US consumption by the FDA.

"Amy" holds a bottle of O.P.M.S., which can run as high as $20 a bottle.
"Amy" holds a bottle of O.P.M.S., which can run as high as $20 a bottle.(WLBT)

Just last month, a Florida family was awarded $11 million in a wrongful death lawsuit against the kratom distributor Grow LLC. This after Krystal Talavera, a 39-year-old mother of four, collapsed in her kitchen. By her side - an open package of kratom.

Amy says she has tried to quit kratom several times. She once made it around four days without taking it, but then had to be driven to the hospital by ambulance because she thought she was dying. The withdrawals so severe, she asked God to let her die.

Even after this experience, she could only fight the temptation for two weeks before she relapsed. The halcyon days of the high are long gone. “There’s no euphoric feeling anymore,” she said. She takes it now simply to survive and to ward off another God, let me die experience.

After our interview, Amy drove me to different gas stations in the area where she regularly picks up her kratom shots.

Earlier in the day, she told me that some people may be able to take kratom and not become addicted to it. “I know I have an addictive personality,” she said. “I know that drug addiction runs in my family and it’s hereditary. Absolutely there are people who can take it and it would not bother them at all.”

“But,” she said as we drove from gas station to gas station, “if you are any form of an addict, you’re on this ride with me.”

The danger with kratom is that, when ingested, it hits on the same brain receptors as prescription opioids. So says Colonel Steven Maxwell, the Director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics. This means that even in its natural state, Maxwell says, kratom possesses innate addictive properties.

This warning is echoed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, who advises against the use of kratom, saying that its properties expose users “to the risks of addiction, abuse, and dependence.” It’s also considered a “drug of concern” by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Kratom is not regulated in the United States, meaning that facilities that produce kratom products do not need to be quality controlled. The Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics once tested gas station kratom products, Maxwell says, finding ingredients inside that were not listed on the label.

In this Sept. 27, 2017 photo, kratom capsules are displayed in Albany, N.Y. U.S. health...
In this Sept. 27, 2017 photo, kratom capsules are displayed in Albany, N.Y. U.S. health authorities say kratom, a herbal supplement promoted as an alternative pain remedy, contains the same chemicals found in opioids, the addictive family of drugs at the center of a national drug abuse crisis.(Mary Esch | AP)

It is possible to overdose on kratom, Maxwell says. From the year 2020 to 2022, kratom was listed as the cause of 51 deaths in Mississippi. This according to the Mississippi Department of Public Safety.

Kratom advocates will be quick to point out, however, that these numbers pale in comparison to deaths associated with other drugs. For instance, in the year 2020, heroin alone was the cause of 70 deaths in Mississippi. Fentanyl took the lives of 313 Mississippians in that same year.

But Maxwell makes this point: Typically, he says, each overdose death in the state can be associated to poly-drug use, meaning there were multiple drugs found in a person’s system when they died. In the toxicology report, there are certain drugs that consistently make an appearance, such as fentanyl and meth. However, kratom is now showing up in more and more of these reports.

The bureau can’t say definitively that kratom itself is the direct cause of some overdose death, but it is in the cocktail of drugs found in the person’s system when they died.

The liability associated with kratom is why you do not see it at major retailers, yet, even with its known dangers, some convenience stores are up for the risk. As are a bounty of consumers, which is why kratom is a billion-dollar industry.

However, with so many kratom users and with its known addictive properties, some are bound to get hooked and thus need professional help in order to free themselves of their addiction.

Ann Fisher is the director of Harbor House, a rehabilitation center in Jackson, Mississippi. She says that in the past few months, they have seen around a dozen or so patients who have sought help for their kratom-adjacent addictions. Harbor House sees around 400 patients a year.

One patient, a man in his 20s, had sought help for kratom addiction before. Kratom was his sole addiction.

Ann Fisher, the director of Harbor House located in Jackson, Mississippi.
Ann Fisher, the director of Harbor House located in Jackson, Mississippi.(WLBT)

“People like to kid themselves that [kratom] is safe, that it’s benign, it’s ‘natural,’ it’s harmless. But this young man... it is a nasty withdrawal,” Fisher said.

Even friends of hers who are in recovery have relapsed on kratom, Fisher says, with them describing kratom as “high-jacking” their brain; their addiction causing them to spend around $30 a day on it.

“There is absolutely no way to know what you’re actually taking,” Fisher stated, alluding to the fact that kratom is still unregulated in the country. ”To me that begs the question, when people say, It’s safe, it’s natural, it’s not addictive. I have to wonder: What is a substance doing to your mind and your thinking that you’re not the least bit worried about consuming something that you really have no idea what’s in it?”

Kratom is illegal is six states. In Mississippi, it has been banned from a number of counties and cities. Some local politicians, however, wish to see it banned state-wide.

Rep. Donnie Scoggin of Mississippi’s 89th district says that in his field as a nurse-practitioner, the topic of kratom, which, during our conversation, he referred to as “legalized gas station heroin,” kept popping up. He says a woman once called him to say that her son committed suicide due to his kratom addiction.

Scoggin says he understands that there are other problems in society like drugs and alcohol, “but we, as the legislature, made laws to try to protect at least juveniles, the ones who may not know any better, from buying this.”

Unlike many states, there is currently no age restriction on purchasing kratom in Mississippi.

What Scoggin hadn’t anticipated in his quest to outlaw kratom, or at least have it regulated in the state, was the fierce resistance he would soon face. This resistance not from the kratom lobby or from other legislatures, but from those who are day-to-day kratom users.

Rep. Scoggin says he was "extremely surprised" by the fierce backlash he received in his quest...
Rep. Scoggin says he was "extremely surprised" by the fierce backlash he received in his quest to ban kratom in Mississippi.(WLBT)

Users like Sherry Owings, who was in a car accident three decades ago that left her with severe nerve damage. “I’ll be in pain the rest of my life,” she told me during a phone call. Owings, who is 60 years old, had been on pain medication since the accident, and confesses to, at one point, becoming an alcoholic.

While trying to manage the pain, her husband heard that kratom might help and ordered it online. Thirty minutes after taking it, Owings said she felt no pain. She also no longer felt the urge to drink.

Owings became a believer in kratom - and then an advocate. And when Monroe County banned kratom, Owings, by brute force, helped make it legal once again.

Sherry Owings attends a Senate committee meeting on kratom at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss.,...
Sherry Owings attends a Senate committee meeting on kratom at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Monday, March 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)(Rogelio V. Solis | AP)

And then there are those who sell kratom.

Steve Bacala owns the business “Dr. Kratom” in Moss Point, Mississippi. Nearly a decade ago, he noticed his co-workers throwing back what he would learn were liquid kratom shots while on the job. “Nobody knew it was kratom at the time,” he said. It was 2014 and all he knew was that the shots were sold at gas stations and that they seemed to improve the mood of those who took them.

Two years after learning about kratom, which he says works “100-times better than any pain pills,” Bacala began selling it - becoming what some might call an enthusiast. While being interviewed for this article, Bacala wore a monogrammed long-sleeve Costa shirt, “Dr. Kratom” written across the back. On his arm, a tattoo of a kratom plant.

(L) Steve Bacala wears a t-shirt with his business "Dr. Kratom" monogrammed on the back | (R) A...
(L) Steve Bacala wears a t-shirt with his business "Dr. Kratom" monogrammed on the back | (R) A kratom plant is tattooed on Bacala's arm(WLBT)

When questioned about the addictiveness of his products, Bacala would say that kratom is only as addictive as coffee, comparing kratom withdrawals to caffeine withdrawals. And when told of the side-effects of kratom, including nausea, dizziness, drowsiness, and chills, Bacala says his experience with the drug has been the opposite.

“Pretty much any pain you can come up with, [kratom] helps dramatically,” he said, further elaborating. “If you Google kratom, and you Google What are the downfalls? What are the negative effects of kratom? That’s what you’re gonna get. If you Google the pros and positives and the good points of kratom, that’s what you’re gonna get. You gotta learn how to Google.”

The World Health Organization concluded in 2021 that there is currently “insufficient evidence” of adverse effects that would warrant kratom to be part of the United Nations’ list of internationally controlled substances.

“If they’re not jumping on getting rid of it, then that should tell you something right there,” Bacala stated.

That’s what Rep. Scoggin is up against. Those like Owings and Bacala who swear by the positive effects of kratom on their lives, those who benefit both physically and financially.

Scoggin attempted to pass legislation that would have made kratom a level one drug, thus making it illegal to sell. Even with the State Medical Association’s backing, the Senate would not bring it up for a vote.

Scoggin was surprised.

When asked why the Senate would not bring it up for a vote, Scoggin didn’t have an answer.

“With it being election year... maybe that had something to do with it. I truly do not know the answer to that.”

At the end of June, Amy sat down for an interview at the WLBT News studio. It had been two months since we had last spoken. Although she appeared more at ease, specters of her addiction had followed her.

During the interview, Amy produced an empty bottle of O.P.M.S., admitting she had taken it earlier that same day.

“If something happens in my life that’s not pleasant, it’s the first thing I think of,” Amy said, describing her ever-present craving for kratom. “When I wake up in the morning, it’s the first thing I think of. [...] At one point, I was doing two at a time, six times a day. I don’t know how I haven’t died.”

Patrice Clark interviews "Amy" at the WLBT studio in Jackson, Mississippi.
Patrice Clark interviews "Amy" at the WLBT studio in Jackson, Mississippi.(WLBT)

In some ways, Amy has made her own life a prison, working, she says, over 100 hours a week in an attempt to keep her cravings at bay. She says she hopes one day kratom is banned in the state; that way, it would be less of a temptation for her. “Treat it exactly like you would treat heroin,” she said.

At one point, Amy told the story of a friend whose son, she says, was killed due to kratom ingestion. She says her friend later took kratom in an effort to better understand what took the life of her son.

“I don’t know if you have kids,” she said, becoming emotional. “But to figure out what took your kid from you, that’s just hell. To go in a store every day and look at what took your kid?”

Are you afraid to die from kratom? Amy was asked.

Amy began to nod, her face now wet with tears. “Yeah.”

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