Kratom, an herbal drink that relieves pain and enhances moods for some enthusiasts, has slipped past the mainstream media for several years. Lately, though, news reports have begun surfacing across the country. Locally, CBS 11 News tackled the subject on Nov. 12 in a report called “Kratom –– Painkiller or the Latest Designer Drug?”
Kratom comes from the leaves of an evergreen tree found in tropical Southeast Asia. The crushed leaves have been used as home remedies for centuries for everything from depression to chronic pain to impotence. The herbal crowd has known about its medicinal qualities for years.
But kratom grew controversial once it began to be sold in head shops, increasing its reputation as a source for a recreational high that can become addictive. Sold in concentrated form, it has a stimulating effect that can be similar to energy drinks. Some manufacturers have been accused of using unlisted or questionable ingredients, although no deaths have been attributed to use of kratom.
The CBS story, like most news reports, linked kratom to K2, “bath salts,” and other synthetic products that have a history of causing extreme physical and mental reactions. A Kennedale woman discovered 80 empty bottles of kratom in her daughter’s possession, noted her mood swings, and staged an intervention. Reporter Ginger Allen interviewed the mom, who showed the empty bottles. Allen’s investigative team then went “undercover” at local head shops to show how easy it is to buy kratom (a legal product).
Payam Panbechi was startled when he saw the report. The Arlington native is a major manufacturer and marketer of kratom in North Texas. He and his business partners make kratom from organic herbs and extracts at NUEVOtanicals, an FDA-compliant manufacturing business operating in two Fort Worth warehouses near Loop 820 and East Lancaster Avenue.
“We’re making a concentrated tea product,” Panbechi said. “You hear it lumped in with your designer drugs, but those are all synthetic.”
Kratom drinks, when done right, are all natural, “a botanical cousin of coffee,” he said, although they contain no caffeine.
On the Channel 11 report, Panbechi noticed that the bottles shown were Kr8om, a product formulated and packaged by NUEVOtanicals. The company’s name and address are listed on the bottles.
“They could have knocked on my door,” he said. “They created a whole segment around one mother who was upset.”
Panbechi’s company buys the leaves in bulk and extracts the natural alkaloids at his laboratory. “Everything is from the plant; nothing extra is added,” he said.
A recent tour of the business showed it to be clean and well organized. Four fulltime and four part-time employees help make kratom in liquid and capsule forms, then package and distribute them. About 25 percent of the company’s output is sold on the retail market under the Kr8om brand. The other 75 percent is sold to companies that re-sell it under their own brand names. All told, about $100,000 worth of NUEVOtanicals are sold by retailers each week, Panbechi said.
Kratom is marketed as a natural pain reliever with mild opiate-like effects for some users. Small bottles sell for about $25. Users drink from the bottle or a spoon. A Fort Worth resident, who asked that his name not be used, said he drinks kratom occasionally for a boost. On the morning we spoke, he had swallowed a 2-ounce bottle of Green Joy, whose label boasts of supplying a “sustained, relaxed energy” and “relief of pain.”
“I took some about an hour ago –– I feel good,” the man said. “I feel energized and maybe a slight euphoria … . I’ve had some shoulder pain, and it feels better than it did an hour ago.”
He waits several days between doses because people who drink kratom every day build up a tolerance over time, he said.
I tried kratom for the first time as research for this story and noticed only a bit of an energy boost and no side effects.
In 2011 Texas and other states banned some of the synthetic ingredients found in K2 and similar products. Few states have banned kratom, which is frequently sold online. Panbechi said his company operates in a transparent manner, follows health and safety guidelines, and lists all ingredients and a serial number on every bottle.
“This is better than it’s ever been done before,” said Panbechi, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in science from the University of Texas at Arlington in 2010.
The North Texas Poison Center gets about 100,000 calls each year and treats more than 45,500 human exposures. People who smoke K2 for a marijuana-like effect or snort bath salts for a cocaine-like rush are far more likely to call for help than those who drink kratom. Statewide, between January 2010 and October 2013, 1,972 people called the poison center after using K2, and 566 people called after ingesting bath salts.
During that same period, 14 people called about kratom.
“While these numbers may seem small, there may be significantly more people ingesting or smoking this, and it just does not get reported to us,” said Charise Thomason, the poison center’s public health educator.
Symptoms the center has observed in connection with kratom include high blood pressure, fast heart rates, confusion, and hallucinations.
Panbechi, who resembles a cross between Frank Zappa and Serpico, is energetic, passionate, and demonstrative. He said he rarely uses kratom because he’s already lively enough. A company vice president said she and other women sometimes use it for menstrual pain and as a mood enhancer.
Heroin and opium addicts have described kratom as a source of relief while going through withdrawal. Others simply use it for a quick buzz.
Despite the low number of complaints to the poison center, kratom is often linked with K2 in many people’s minds because both are sold in smoke shops as legal drugs. Pandechi said he relies on smoke shops to sell his products for now because it’s easier to forge relationships with small, independent businesses. But he hopes that success there will propel his company to an eventual deal with a large corporation such as Walgreens or Target, he said.
Forbes writer David DiSalvo discussed kratom in February 2012 under the headline “Is Kratom the New ‘Bath Salts’ or Just an Organic Pain Reliever with Euphoric Effects?” That article drew few conclusions but spurred 80 comments and several e-mails, most of them supporting kratom.
In April, DiSalvo updated the story on his science and technology blog. The author, reporter, and public education specialist wrote that he’d ingested kratom regularly for a few weeks and that it provided a boost “similar to a strong cup of coffee” but “longer-lasting and level” and without an energy “crash” at the end. He noticed no side effects. When he stopped using kratom, he described a sluggishness that wore off after a day or so. Kicking coffee is far worse, he said.
“Having now experienced the product myself for a number of weeks, I can see no reason why it should be banned, or on what basis such a product would be banned if people can walk into a typical coffee shop and buy an enormous cup of an addictive substance that’s arguably more potent than any kratom available anywhere,” he concluded.