MICHAEL ROBERTS | SEPTEMBER 12, 2019 | 6:02AM
Kratom, a popular herbal substance of Southeast Asian origin, continues to be targeted by the federal Food and Drug Administration, which has issued numerous health warnings about it. The agency has even taken part in the seizure of a shipment bound for Denver, which banned kratom for human consumption in late 2017.
Nonetheless, kratom remains readily available for sale in Denver and throughout much of Colorado, and according to knowledgeable sources in the state and beyond, business continues to boom despite the FDA's actions and the Mile High City's restrictions. To keep up with demand, suppliers say they are purchasing kratom by the ton either in raw form — leaves plucked straight from the plant — or ground into a powder that is frequently used to make teas.
Among those providing the herb in these parts is Andbert Virgo, a kratom farmer and supplier based in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. "Colorado is a big market for kratom," notes Virgo, corresponding via email. "I send 10 tons/month there."
We ran this claim by two kratom entrepreneurs in Colorado who agreed to share details of their operations anonymously, including one who had previously done business with Virgo. And while they couldn't say with certainty that his specific assertion was accurate, they didn't push back on the idea that this much product was being moved through the state on a monthly basis. For instance, one source had a ton and a half of kratom on hand but was concerned enough about running low that another half-ton was on order.
Mitragyna speciosa, the name the scientific community prefers for kratom, isn't new. The plant has been used medically for centuries in areas where it's indigenous, including Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, and in the West, it's been employed since the 1980s as a pain reliever and aid in ending addictions to opioids and even alcohol. But in 2016, the FDA moved to place kratom on its list of Schedule I narcotics alongside heroin — and while the feds subsequently backed off this designation, they've continued to criticize its effects on a regular basis.
As for advocates of kratom, including the Kratom Information & Resource Center, which recently ripped the media for what it characterized as one-sided coverage of the topic, they lobby for further testing to determine the medical benefits of the substance even as they contend that prohibitions may put users at risk — particularly those who turned to it to kick a dependence on opioids.
Indonesia, meanwhile, doesn't allow domestic consumption of kratom; neither does Malaysia, although Thailand now does. But exporting it in unprocessed form remains lawful — and among suppliers, Virgo is quite vocal. Consider this translated and edited comment on a Change.org petition titled "Save the Kratom Plant:"
There is no negative impact of kratom. If kratom is a dangerous controversy, let's open a debate between the Ministry of Health or those who always say it is dangerous and those who say kratom is a good plant. We need evidence and not an issue exhaled by people the one who don't understand kratom. In general, kratom is a positive thing for health and the economy. What will the people of West Kalimantan depend on? Palm, rubber or coconut? Please answer whether the price of these commodities can lift the economy. The answer is no.... Come on, government, don't be shy to open yourself up to this. Don't just make uncertainty. Kratom is controversial in its country of origin, but not in the destination countries. In my opinion, this is an economic, pharmaceutical, political war.
Virgo, who's been farming kratom since 2015, insists that the FDA's tactics haven't put a damper on sales. "There is no influence for me regarding policies that want to ban kratom," he maintains, adding, "I recently sent three tons to Florida."
The Colorado kratom entrepreneurs also say that sales in the state have continued to rise steadily over the past year, with no end in sight. That includes Denver, which currently requires kratom sold within city limits to bear a label stressing that it shouldn't be consumed; the herb can also be used as incense or an ingredient for making soap and candles. Indeed, one source loves to do business in Denver specifically because of the labels, since the warnings presumably remove any possible liability should someone have an adverse reaction to consumption.
The FDA has linked fifteen deaths between 2014 and 2016 to kratom, but proponents of the substance point out that fourteen of the victims had other substances in their system, making the actual cause difficult to determine.
Virgo, for his part, shrugs off other concerns about kratom. While some consider it to be a miracle herb, others argue that it's ruined their lives, and a number of professionals at local clinics see it as consumers trading one addiction for another.
In Virgo's view, "Something that is overused will have a negative effect. For example, water is very good for the body, but you will die if you drink it as much as ten gallons at a time."
With that in mind, Virgo has a slew of kratom strains available, including green, gold and black extract, and he's actively courting new partners across the United States, including in Colorado.