Vivian Allen sought chronic pain relief.

A car wreck left the 55-year-old grandmother immobilized. Six subsequent back surgeries led to severe nerve damage. A doctor advised implanting a morphine pump but Allen, from Walker, Louisiana, worried about the southern climate. A morphine pump implant could not withstand 90-degree heat and could kill her.

She felt desperate.

When a friend from a Facebook group suggested kratom, the herbal supplement derived from leaves of a Southeast Asian tree, Allen decided to try it.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “It alleviated my symptomatic problems and it helped me have a functional life without having to get the implant.”

Kratom, which she began taking in 2015, also allowed her to wean herself from the Xanax pills she’d been prescribed for more than two decades.

“People take kratom because they need it,” she said. “It’s that simple. Very few people take it recreationally.”

But if lawmakers have their way, Allen and other kratom users throughout Louisiana could be out of luck.

A bill set to criminalize kratom in Louisiana was passed several weeks ago.

The legislation, prompted by a Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) report and pushed through by state Rep. Chris Turner, R-Ruston, was passed unanimously by the Senate and the House and signed into law June 11 by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Kratom will be banned under the act if the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) categorizes it as a Schedule I drug. The category, which includes drugs like heroin, ecstasy and peyote, indicates a lack of medical use and suggests a high potential for abuse.

This move to classify kratom as Schedule I has been attempted before. In 2016, the DEA listed kratom as a “drug and chemical of concern” and temporarily banned it. It’s currently illegal in Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin. Other states, including Colorado, Nevada, Illinois and Florida, have outlawed kratom in certain jurisdictions.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn't approved kratom for human consumption either. In June, the FDA expressed disdain when addressing kratom distributors in Folsom, California and Wilmington, North Carolina for making false medical assertions.

“Despite our warnings, companies continue to sell this dangerous product and make deceptive medical claims that are not backed by science or any reliable scientific evidence,” FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless said in a statement. “As we work to combat the opioid crisis, we cannot allow unscrupulous vendors to take advantage of consumers by selling products with unsubstantiated claims that they can treat opioid addiction or alleviate other medical conditions.”

The FDA continued to state that “substances” in kratom have opioid properties “that expose users to the risks of addiction, abuse and dependence.”

“There are no FDA-approved uses for kratom, and the agency has received concerning reports about the safety of kratom,” the statement said. “The FDA encourages more research to better understand kratom’s safety profile, including the use of kratom combined with other drugs.”

The FDA also has recommended classifying kratom as a Schedule I drug.

So what exactly is kratom?

Originating from a Southeast Asian evergreen tree, kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) leaves contain mitragynine and 7-a-hydroxymitragynine, organic compounds that target opioid receptors in the brain. It can be taken in capsule or powder form or brewed into a tea. There are several strains including Maeng Da, which is said to boost energy; Red Vein Kali, commonly taken for sedation; and Green Vein Kali, known to treat pain.

Although they work on the same receptors as opiates, they don’t have the same chemical properties.

Wesley Nance, 26, a singer who lives in New Orleans and works at The Herb Import Company in Mid-City, said he used two strains of kratom to ease scoliosis pain.

He took 2 grams of Green Vein Kali in the morning for his aching, and 2 grams of Red Vein Kali at night so he could sleep without discomfort.

“It made my pain go away,” he said. “I was amazed.”

Nance was wary of pharmaceutical drugs after seeing his mother’s addiction to opioids, he said. “Kratom helped me change the family history,” he said. “It helped me heal naturally.”

Scott Ploof, 35, publisher of Big Easy Magazine, began using it after the death of his grandfather.

“It helped me alleviate anxiety and depression in a natural way,” he said.

Ploof believes a partisan political climate is undermining the reality of the drug's benefits and possible risks. “Politics is getting in the way of reason,” he said. “Kratom is a safe, natural, herbal alternative supplement that can be used to treat a variety of issues and is better than a lot of what else is out there.”

Kratom also has been praised by former opioid users.

Neal Catlett, 39, of Lexington, Kentucky, became hooked on oxycodone and morphine in 2015 after a shoulder injury. He credits kratom with helping him kick the prescription medications by easing withdrawal symptoms and physical pain.

“It’s a lifesaver for those who suffer from drug addiction,” he told Gambit. “It’s an amazing plant.”

The LDH, however, outlined different results of kratom use. The department's 14-page report, released in February, points to dangers.

In 2017, the FDA reported 44 to 47 deaths related to kratom use, with one caused by “pure kratom.” The rest resulted from mixing other drugs with kratom, including fentanyl, diphenhydramine, caffeine, and morphine. Kratom also was associated with a national salmonella outbreak from January 2017 to May 2018 that affected 199 people ranging from 1 to 75 years old. No deaths were recorded but one-third of the individuals needed hospitalization, the report said.

“Heavy users of kratom often lose weight, become tired and suffer constipation,” the report said. “Facial redness may also occur. Repeated doses of 10 to 25 grams of dried leaves cause perspiration, dizziness, nausea, and dysphoria (a state of unease or generalized dissatisfaction with life), which become quickly replaced by a state of calm, euphoria and a dreaming state which may last up to six hours. The LDH concluded by advocating for a ban.

“Kratom currently has no accepted medical uses,” it goes onto say. “Therefore, the Louisiana Department of Health recommends that kratom be banned from general consumption in the state, with exceptions made only in the context of well-designed scientific studies with appropriate oversight, data safety monitoring boards and regulatory approval.”

LDH spokeswoman Mindy Faciane told Gambit the decision was made with consumer well-being in mind. “The Louisiana Department of Health supports any efforts that help make Louisiana residents safer,” Faciane said.

Kratom has been a boon for New Orleans businesses that sell it, despite any risks. Uxi Duxi in Mid-City and Mushroom New Orleans in Uptown sell kratom products to loyal customers.

Ashley Daily, who owns the Euphorbia Kava Bar in Riverbend, said kratom accounts for more than 50 percent of her business. A ban “wouldn’t shut me down,” she said, "but it would make me very broke and it would affect my employees.”

After five years in business, she is making a profit for the first time, largely because of kratom — but Daily said it’s about more than commerce. “It’s what [a ban] would do to my customers who depend on kratom,” she said. “Twenty percent of my clientele use it as a natural painkiller. Other ex-users get off opioids with it and it truly helps them.”

Christopher Hummel, owner of Mushroom New Orleans, began selling kratom about seven years ago but only saw a sales uptick in the past two years.

“People are now trying to avoid prescription painkillers, and they take kratom so they don’t have to [take them],” he says. “Banning it would cause a major health issue.”

Reza Hardinata, 20, a native of Pontianak, Indonesia, told Gambit kratom is his family’s main source of income. His father harvests it and Hardinata sells kratom to local companies that export the substance each month. “Kratom is very helpful in terms of health, addiction and pain relief and also improves the economy of my family and also the community,” he said. “This [ban] is very unfortunate.”

Others who study the science behind kratom believe the FDA is amplifying adverse effects while ignoring empirical data. Marc T. Swogger, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center, conducted peer-reviewed research on kratom. Although no clinical trials to examine kratom’s benefits have been directed in America, he said, “observational studies” in the United States and Southeast Asia have been “compelling.”

“Across samples, people report pain relief, relief of anxiety or depressed mood, and the utility of kratom to serve as an opioid replacement, easing symptoms of opioid withdrawal,” he said.

Swogger believes criminalization would set up a “new and vibrant black market” for kratom.

“In addition to being ineffective, a kratom ban would be wrong,” he said. “People are using kratom to help with difficult conditions and reporting success. For some of them, lack of access to kratom would lead to the increased use of classical opioids, setting the stage for yet more overdoses.”

The Kratom Information & Resource Center (KIRC) last week launched a campaign to get journalists to cover kratom with "fair and balanced" reporting. 

“This is a legal product that is being used by informed adults in the privacy of their homes and dedicated commercial establishments," KIRC spokesman Max Karlin said in a statement. "If kratom were as much of a problem as it has been made out by some organizations engaging in reckless ‘Leafer Madness’ rhetoric, America’s hospitals and ERs would be choked. ... Instead, experts can’t agree whether there has been even one kratom-related death in the U.S.”

C. McClain “Mac” Haddow, senior fellow on public policy at the American Kratom Association (AKA), agrees, and believes the approximately 5 million kratom users in the U.S. should have access to a regulated product.

That’s why Haddow and the AKA are working with politicians to enact the Kratom Consumer Protection Act, which aims "to regulate preparation, distribution, and sale of kratom products" to prohibit adulterated or contaminated kratom. He believes selling to people over 18 and ensuring the purity of the kratom would be more helpful than a ban.

"If you ban it, people in the kratom community will die," he says.

Instead, he believes in regulatory measures and thinks kratom advocates in Louisiana will prevail in the end.

“The Louisiana ban is not as bad as it sounds,” he said. “We’re pretty comfortable on the federal side that there is movement. We’re more and more confident that we’re being heard.”

Haddow said he plans to work with Rep. Turner’s office to enact the Kratom Consumer Protection Act in Louisiana during the next legislative session.

Allen, who testified in a June judiciary hearing in Baton Rouge about kratom use, said passing the act would be the most effective compromise. “Having the Kratom Consumer Protection Act is the best thing for Louisiana,” she says. “Consumers need to be protected but they shouldn’t lose what helps them. Mine is only one of 5 million stories. People shouldn’t be denied the ability to heal.”

Henrick Karoliszyn is a New Orleans-based journalist. He can be reached on Twitter: @Henrick_AK