9 investigates Kratom: Natural herb or deadly drug?

By: Joe Bruno

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Lauren Eden sleeps with a teddy bear every night. Inside the bear are the final items she has to remember her son: a mini urn, a funeral pamphlet and his suicide note.

"He wrote in it, ‘Mom and Dad, I loved you very much please know there is nothing you can do but I have ruined myself with drugs,’" Lauren Eden said. "It was Kratom."

John Eden was 22 years old and in the Navy intelligence program at the University of Georgia.

His mother says like many users, John took Kratom to treat depression and stress but his usage spiraled out of control. He shot and killed himself in the middle of the night at a Georgia gas station.

"My son thought he was going to do it the natural way and smart way," Eden said. "It is not safe and it is highly addictive.

After his death his parents found boxes of Kratom in his room. Receipts showed he was spending as much as $500 per week on it.

The Kratom leaf comes from a tree in Southeast Asia. Experts said it can act as both a stimulant and depressant.

"In smaller doses it has a stimulant effect. It makes users edgy, wired, able to do physical activities that they didn't think they could," Bob Martin, a drug counselor with RE Martin and Associates, said. "When used in higher doses it uses itself as an opiate."

Kratom is banned in its native country Thailand, and in Indiana, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Vermont. It's legal in North and South Carolina.

Across Charlotte and Charlotte's suburbs, handmade signs advertise for "Imperial Kratom." Channel 9 discovered the business being operated out of a home in Waxhaw by Clara Plummer, a real estate agent.

Plummer said she became a strong advocate for Kratom after taking it as a treatment for depression.

"I wanted something that would help me be me and help make me a decent member of society," Plummer said. "I needed a way out of depression and so I found Kratom and it is wonderful."

It isn't difficult to purchase Kratom. A quick Google search turns up several results. Channel 9 found it being sold in a T-shirt store in South Carolina.

There are no requirements for warning labels on Kratom. One case purchased by Channel 9 had no warnings. Another package purchased by Channel 9 warns on the back that the product hasn't been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

But the FDA knows Kratom well and has warned that it poses a risk to public health and has the potential for abuse.

This past January, U.S. marshals seized, at the FDA's request, more than 90,000 bottles of dietary supplements for having Kratom as an ingredient.

"We have identified Kratom as a botanical substance that could pose a risk to public health and have the potential for abuse," said Melinda Plaisier, the FDA's associate commissioner for regulatory affairs. "The FDA will continue to exercise our full authority under law to take action on these new dietary ingredients, especially if they ignore the notification requirements, as part of our commitment to protecting the health of the American people."

In February 2014, the FDA issued an import alert that allows U.S. officials to detain imported dietary supplements and bulk dietary ingredients that are, or contain, Kratom without physical examination.

"Serious concerns exist regarding the toxicity of Kratom in multiple organ systems," Lyndsay Meyer, press officer for the FDA, said. "Consumption of Kratom can lead to a number of health impacts, including, among others, respiratory depression, vomiting, nervousness, weight loss and constipation. Kratom has been indicated to have both narcotic and stimulant-like effects and withdrawal symptoms may include hostility, aggression, excessive tearing, aching of muscles and bones and jerky limb movements."

Plummer said she doesn't warn Kratom of its potential side effects. She said it hasn't been researched enough, and encourages more people to study its effect.

"I am not a doctor, if someone wants to buy Kratom, they have to do their own research," she said. "I can't tell them it will do anything for them."

That's not what Plummer's website states. It lists Kratom as a natural alternative to treat several conditions.

"Kratom is a natural alternative to treat as diabetes, pain management, depression, anxiety, addiction, and fatigue," Imperial Kratom's website, theherbsyouwant.com, lists on its About Us section.

According to Plummer, most of her sales are to head shops but many of her customers are heroin addicts who use the plant instead of the narcotic.

"Kratom will help them get over the withdrawal, then they can stop then they can just be them," she said. "Most people take Kratom to get off drugs."

That's enough of a red flag for drug counselors like Martin, who said it's irresponsible to let addicts use Kratom.

"This is being marketed with no scientific evidence that it is a cure for addiction," Martin said. "They've just changed one addiction for another."

It's a legal addiction that Eden said led her son to take his own life.

"My son would probably still be alive today if he was a heroin addict because at least I could go to bed every night and pray today is the day he is going to be arrested," Eden said. "But my son didn't have that luxury. This is under the radar. It's all legal."

Efforts are underway to ban it in Florida and New Jersey but not in the Carolinas. It's considered a healing herb by some, a dangerous drug by others.de

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