Use of an herbal and nutritional supplement called Kratom is raising the concern of doctors and appears to be on the rise in the Twin Cities. Hennepin County Medical Center's Poison Control Center has had about 20 calls so far this year, double the number as usual. Some of the callers with symptoms of withdrawal and addiction.
"Kratom can be addictive just like Vicodin or oxycodone," says Dr. JoAn Laes, a medical toxicologist at HCMC. "The fact that the calls have increased makes me think we have a product that's growing in popularity here."
Kratom is a tropical tree in the coffee family that grows in Southeast Asia. Its scientific name is Mitraguna Speciosa. In addition to having a stimulant effect, its active ingredient 7-Hydroxymitragynine hits the brain's opioid receptor in a way similar to morphine, but with effects far less dramatic and intense.
It is sold in a liquid, powder and pill form, and because it is considered a nutritional product it is not regulated by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).
The Fox 9 Investigators went undercover and found Kratom was widely available in the Twin Cities in head shops, herbal shops, and nutrition stores. Some of the product didn't contain any label or dosage recommendation. Apparently for legal reasons, clerks were unwilling to tell us much about Kratom.
"We're not doctors," one clerk told us. "It's a natural herbal supplement, and that's all we tell people. We tell them to do their own research."
Another clerk told us she could not recommend a particular type of Kratom or tell us about dosage, because she would be prescribing without a license, but added, "I can talk about the magical properties all day."
On the internet people recommend Kratom for everything from pain relief to premature ejaculation. But perhaps most dangerous and controversial of all, many recommend it as a way to taper off opioid based pain medication.
Dr. Laes said there is little research on Kratom and how it's metabolized, or how it may interact with prescriptions and street drugs.
In May, 22-year old John Eden, a student at the University of Georgia, committed suicide after what his family says was chronic use of Kratom.
"There are people taking Kratom who think it's a mild drug, that it's all natural so it must be safe," said his mother, Laura Eden.
His mother says her son experienced severe symptoms of withdrawal when he tried to get off Kratom.
"He didn't want to go through the vomiting, the shaking, the twitching, the seizures," Laura Eden said.
After her son's suicide she says they discovered a massive amount of Kratom in his apartment. It's a similar story to what happened to Linda Mautner's son who committed suicide in South Florida last year. Ian Mautner, 20, was spending $60 a day on Kratom.
"He spent hours in the bathroom picking his face, his eyes would roll back in his head, he wasn't eating anymore," said Linda Mautner.
"It was a nightmare, an absolute nightmare, watching my son and what this did to him."
The Drug Enforcement Administration has now identified Kratom as a "substance of concern." It is illegal in four states: Wisconsin, Indiana, Tennessee, and Vermont. In Thailand, where Kratom is widely used, it is considered a controlled substance.
If you are taking Kratom and have concerns, or an adverse reaction, you can call the HCMC Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.