State Politics

Kratom, the obscure tea that NC senators want to keep away from kids

A liquid form of the herbal supplement kratom is poured from a bottle in this photo illustration.
A liquid form of the herbal supplement kratom is poured from a bottle in this photo illustration. Getty Images

A little-known drug often served as a tea drink could face new regulations under a bill moving through the state Senate.

Kratom is a plant-based product that has an effect similar to painkillers. A Republican senator says it has been linked to deaths, and he wants to ban sales to people under age 18. Supporters say kratom is no more harmful than coffee.

Sen. Tom McInnis of Rockingham sponsored the bill, which was approved by a Senate committee Thursday. The legislation would make underage possession of kratom a Class 2 misdemeanor and would require retailers to check IDs.

“We had 24 people that the medical examiner of North Carolina found kratom in their system” while investigating deaths, McInnis said. “That causes a red flag to go up. ... We don’t need kids under 18 years old using anything that would potentially be habit-forming or to cause them to be susceptible to some type of addiction.”

Elizabeth Gardner serves kratom drinks at her business, Krave Kava Bar in Carrboro. She said the fears about kratom are overblown.

“It eases any aches and pains you have without all the effects of opiates,” she said. “It’s going to give you a subtle stimulation that will give you energy. You can’t get high on it at all. You’re not going to lose your consciousness.”

Gardner says kratom is no more addictive than coffee or sugar and that other causes – often other drugs – were involved in the North Carolina deaths that McInnis cites.

“There’s no evidence to support there’s been any problems at all,” she said. “The Republicans want to regulate something that isn’t a problem.”

Senators initially considered banning kratom, and Gardner said the 18-and-up requirement won’t hurt her business because she doesn’t serve underage customers unless a parent signs a waiver.

“I don’t know anyone in the industry who sells to children,” she said. “I don’t know children who want this product, because it doesn’t taste good.”

Gardner brought kratom tea to the legislature recently, leaving a tray of what looked like traditional iced tea outside a committee room where the bill was debated.

“That’s how you dispel erroneous information,” she said.

But McInnis said he passed on the chance to experience kratom himself.

“I’m not a guinea pig,” he said. “They brought us several samples, which we immediately put in the trash.”

IndyWeek recently reviewed another version of kratom served at Krave Kava Bar, describing it as “a green-brown sludge, ostensibly ladled from some South Pacific swamp.” The writer said it tasted like “lukewarm dirt water,” and her lips went numb before she began to feel an “odd mix of calm and hyper-aware energy.”

McInnis says he’s also concerned with brands of kratom sold in powder form at convenience stores, head shops and online. A website promoting kratom suggests that the powder can be used in chocolate milkshakes.

“It’s given a beautiful package with a lot of colors and given a sexy name,” the senator said, noting that the Federal Drug Administration doesn’t regulate kratom or how concentrated the powder is. “We don’t know what it’s been adulterated with.”

Kratom first became popular in Thailand decades ago, and the country later banned it because it was being abused. Indiana, Tennessee, Vermont and Wyoming have banned it entirely, while Florida studied it and decided not to pursue regulations.

Scientific research on the effects and risks of kratom is limited. McInnis’ bill would launch a legislative study on kratom as well as another recreational drug, nitrous oxide, which is known as whippets or “hippie crack.”

McInnis said he’s not ruling out further regulations depending on what the study finds.

“We tried to take a middle-of-the-road pathway and put it in a study,” he said.

The bill is scheduled for a Senate floor vote Friday.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter