In the land of legalization, kratom users wait to hear if they’ll lose their drug of choice

5 min. read
A pro-kratom protest at the Capitol. (Courtesy Jeremy Haley)

In an ironic twist, Denver has become one of the first places to make a drug illegal.

The substance is kratom, derived from a tropical tree leaf. Its fans liken it to coffee, and it's informally used to treat chronic pain and to replace other substances, such as opioids.

Late last month, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency announced that it was planning to ban the drug as an "imminent hazard" to public safety, citing its rising popularity and the potential for addiction. Now, the final decision won't be announced until Sept. 30 or later, but the city of Denver decided to make its move early.

"If the worst case scenario happens, are we going to fulfill our missions and responsibility? Are we going to be OK with what we did?" said Danica Lee, director of public health inspections for the city, citing the "imminent hazard" language as a tipping point.

"If we have illnesses, or injuries, and we had just sat on it for a month, we would not have felt OK with that."

So city officials went out to about a dozen kratom businesses and told them to stop selling kratom and issue recalls.

Jeremy Haley, 30, saw his business essentially shut down by the early Denver ban.

"Right now, we’re kind of stuck in a little bit of a gray area. They can make the announcement at any time," said the owner of Rocky Mountain Kratom.  So he's got an undisclosed amount of kratom sitting in an undisclosed location. If it becomes illegal, he'd most likely be allowed to destroy it under city supervision.

He was seeing between 80 and 100 customers per day, he said, at a business that started in his apartment in 2013. At the time he was saddled with a DUI and a drinking problem that he picked up, in part, in the oil industry.

"I ended up making some foolish decisions. I drove after a few drinks, and I had two grams of MDMA in my pocket," Haley said. "Kratom helped change my life. From that point on. I very rarely drink. Kratom kind of scratches that itch that addicts have to deal with."

The vast majority of his customers, from soccer moms to attorneys, are dealing with an addiction of some sort, he said. ( has a collection of kratom users' stories.)

Predictably, a lot of users are going to online stores and businesses outside Denver to stock up on the stuff.

A protest at the Capitol. (Courtesy Jeremy Haley)
Wait, what does it even do?

"It calms me down and helps me focus more. It makes me more capable of communicating and connecting with others without any kind of hangover or the other downsides," Haley said.

A study in the Review of Therapeutics found the substance produced sociability, alertness and energy in low doses, and started feeling more like opioids in high doses. Serious toxicity is "rare." The reported fatalities have typically involved simultaneous use of another substance, the study reported.

People brew the stuff as tea, smoke it and snort it. Danica Lee, the city official, said her inspectors found one local business where a regular crew converged at 1 p.m. to imbibe. A typical cup of kratom tea might cost you $1.50 to $3.

"One of our investigators was in one of the kratom bars," Lee said. "Around lunchtime, the place was empty. And at 1 o'clock the place just filled up with people. They turned up electronic music, took shots and chased it with pineapple. Within a few minutes, they left."

Sounds fun.

So, what's next?

Kratom fans have been lobbying hard to forestall the DEA ban, which would put kratom in the same class of drugs as marijuana (remember, it's federally illegal), heroin and ecstasy.

That decision could come as early as Sept. 30, but the DEA has said it likely won't happen that soon, reported.

In the meantime, people have been rallying to save kratom, including a march that Haley said drew 100 people to the Colorado State Capitol. From his perspective, this is a life-or-death affair.

He says the DEA will have "blood on its hands" if kratom users go back to heroin and overdose. The Verge argues that a ban could hinder research into the drug's potential. Counterpoint: It's fully possible to become addicted to kratom itself, and we don't know much about what that can do, The New York Times warns.

Haley wants to see it regulated. He thinks getting rid of the impure impostors could clear kratom's name. And he's not too distraught yet.

"Right now, I feel very, very optimistic and confident that kratom will not be listed as a Schedule I, based purely on speculation," he said.

Meanwhile, he's diversifying his business: Rocky Mountain Kratom is closed, but his new store, Artisan's Apothecary opens on South Broadway mid-October with a mix of all-natural alternatives to everyday products.

Do you know anyone having a goodbye party for kratom?

I want to go. Email me.

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