There's a retail shop in SF devoted to this vaguely legal drug. So I tried it. (2023)

This story was originally published on February 26, 2021.

Depending on who you ask, kratom is either a stimulant or a sedative.

In Thailand, day laborers have traditionally chewed the leaves of the kratom tree to boost energy and soothe muscle aches. Here in the U.S., powdered forms of the product are used to make an earthy tea used to treat pain, depression, anxiety and addiction.

When taken in small doses, people report feeling alert and motivated. In high quantities, kratom can have opioid-like analgesic effects. Unfortunately, owing to a lack of approved research, much of the conversation surrounding kratom still remains anecdotal. But that hasn’t kept it from growing in appeal.

There's a retail shop in SF devoted to this vaguely legal drug. So I tried it. (1)

Currently, an estimated 10 million to 15 million Americans are using kratom, and for the purposes of this story, I became one of them, testing a few doses of Green Maeng Da kratom, which purports to have motivational effects (more about that later).

The substance’s reputation as a natural medicine has only recently been gaining traction in the U.S., but goes back centuries in countries like Thailand and Indonesia. Indonesia exclusively supplies the U.S. with kratom leaves and powder – a situation that has resulted in the substance’s nebulous legality. As Thailand actively continues to debate legalizing the export of kratom, domestically the substance is subject to a patchwork of U.S. state laws while federally it is categorized as a dietary supplement.

At present, there are six states which have passed laws against kratom (Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Rhode Island, Vermont, Wisconsin) while four others (Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Georgia) have conversely established patient protections.

For the remaining 40, including California, kratom remains unregulated at the state level.

This vague legal framework, combined with a murky reputation, has relegated kratom to the ranks of other head shop curios like Salvia divinorum and the San Pedro cactus. In San Francisco, for instance, there is but one retail establishment in the city focused exclusively on kratom.

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Located in the Mission District, the website for Bumble Bee Botanicals (which declined to offer comment for this story) sells about 15 different strains of powdered kratom. Beyond Bumble Bee, Twistle Thistle Apothecary also sells the substance. Across the U.S., there are other brick-and-mortar retailers like Bumble Bee in Denver and Portland, but kratom culture indeed long subsisted thanks largely to smoke shops and informal testimonials traded on trusted drug forums like Erowid.

Is the scarcity of kratom an indication of its questionable safety? Well, to date, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported more than 90 kratom-involved overdose deaths.

While this number may at first seem staggering, it’s important to note that kratom advocates fiercely contest any findings that kratom can be lethal. Instead, they argue that other substances or tainted batches of product are likely the culprit.

There's a retail shop in SF devoted to this vaguely legal drug. So I tried it. (2)

According to Marc T. Swogger, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center, all we really know at this point is that we need to know more.

“We know a lot about the experiences of people who use kratom,” Swagger said. “Across cultures they are similar, in that people report pain reduction, mood elevation, and that the use of kratom is helpful for easing opioid withdrawal symptoms and reducing intake of classical opioids like heroin. So, it's a harm reduction agent. But we really need clinical trials that will show whether kratom has more rare and nuanced effects — both therapeutic and adverse effects.”

Let’s just say Swogger’s words were enough to leave me feeling slightly nervous when a kratom care package arrived at my doorstep one day.


Justin Kats, the founder of Kats Botanicals, didn’t start out with plans to be one of the leading kratom suppliers in the U.S. When his phone buzzed in August 2016 with news that the Drug Enforcement Agency planned to classify the two main active ingredients in kratom as Schedule I controlled substances, he was thinking mostly of himself.

“At the time,” Kats said in a phone interview with SFGATE, “I was a kratom consumer, so of course, I looked into it and then I started to panic. That’s when I decided that I needed to import as much kratom as possible — because I didn't want to stop taking it.”

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His efforts ultimately proved unnecessary when a petition decrying the action quickly netted more than 100,000 signatures. In addition, a protest in front of the White House featuring hundreds of kratom advocates further prompted the DEA to withdraw kratom from scheduling consideration within a few months.

Kats was grateful for the development, but the news subsequently left him with an interesting new problem: What was he supposed to do with over 100 kilos of kratom?

At first, he tried kratom forums online, networking with members by offering free samples. Then there was a Facebook group, and before long, Kats Botanicals was born.

Today, the operation, headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, offers a number of different kratom powder blends in addition to other products like shilajit — a black resin that forms under rocks in the Himalayan mountains that has reputed healing properties. There are also plans to sell herbs like moringa and willow bark, but for now, Kats Botanicals’ main business remains kratom.

Speaking with Kats, who supplied the kratom I’d shortly be trying for the first time, he expressed empathy when I confessed to being confused: How is a Maeng Da kratom different from a Green Vein kratom, aside from the coloring?

“All of these strains and names that you'll see are really all from the same tree,” Kats explained. “It's mostly all the same kratom. The differences are the drying methods.”

To get red kratom powder — known for calming properties — dry your kratom leaves indoors and in a bag. Do the same but skip the bag, and you’ll get a greenish powder that may or may not inspire feelings of motivation. Or, if you dry your kratom leaves indoors but then take them outdoors for the last part of the process, you’ll end up with a white powder, which Kats says can work wonders for “morning recovery.”

For my own initiation, I took Kats’ recommended dose of one teaspoon of Green Maeng Da kratom mixed into a cup of warm water.

Warned of a possible foul flavor, I felt relieved to find the concoction tasted no worse than any other over-the-counter natural supplement I’ve dared to ingest in the past. Tasting of soil mixed with matcha, the powder also revealed a bitter aftertaste appropriate for a substance derived from a tree in the coffee family.

It didn’t take long — perhaps 10 minutes — to feel a slight euphoria, both in body and mind. It was subtle, certainly, but unmistakable.

Comparable perhaps to a perfectly timed shot of espresso or few minutes soaking in the sun, my initial experience with kratom was that I enjoyed a good mood and a mild burst of energy for about an hour. Once that time had passed, I was pleased to discover no “crash” or “comedown” but rather a return to my pre-kratom state.

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Having had one go, would I try it again? There are definitely arguments in its favor.

Beyond the pleasurable experience and highlighted properties of each unique kratom formula, the product is also impressively affordable.

Kats Botanicals sells the majority of their kratom powders at $5.99 for 20 grams and $34.99 for 250 grams. With a teaspoon equating to roughly 4 grams of kratom powder, a single packet could seemingly last quite a while, unless, say, one were to form a habit.

Indeed, one of the issues central to the ongoing debate over kratom’s place in society concerns the risk of growing dependent on the substance. To be fully accurate, the debate isn’t really whether kratom can be habit-forming. That much has been accepted. Justin Kats, for instance, has no trouble labeling his own kratom use as a “habit.” Instead, the question he feels should be asked is whether having a kratom habit is in and of itself a problem.

“I mean, it is a habit for me,” Kats reasoned, “but you have to look at it from this point of view: What's better for you? There are millions of people who are in a certain spot in their lives, where if they introduced kratom, their lives would become better. However, there are people who introduce kratom into their lives and don't experience that. In those cases, their habit is not bettering their life.”

Professor Swogger concedes that false information abounds when it comes to kratom, and he’s quick to caution against settling for easy conclusions.

“There are misconceptions,” he said, “including that kratom has been causally linked to psychosis and death. Studies have not shown this. But until better scientific evidence is available, people should not assume that kratom is entirely safe.”

There's a retail shop in SF devoted to this vaguely legal drug. So I tried it. (3)

“Importantly,” Swogger continued, “kratom can cause cravings and, upon discontinuation, withdrawal symptoms. The withdrawal associated with kratom is not as severe as classical opioids and the majority of those surveyed do not experience any type of dependence. Nonetheless, that some people do experience dependence is undisputed and a clear risk that should figure into anyone's choice about whether to take or not take kratom.”

With the jury still most decidedly still out, it has thus far largely fallen on the individual to decide whether kratom might be right for them.

Could kratom improve my life? Maybe so! When I think about it, it’s not so difficult to imagine myself relying on kratom — not daily, but occasionally — both as a mood-lifter and as a source for an afternoon energy burst.

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That said, the specter of growing dependent on kratom is definitely something I can’t ignore. However, in accepting it, one can also point to any number of other similar bargains already at play in our everyday lives. From coffee and kombucha to alcohol and tobacco, we are always at internal war to define the line between “enough” and “too much.” While such a limit can (and almost assuredly does) exist for kratom as well, that doesn’t mean the baby should be tossed with the funky tea water.

Caution? Absolutely. Skepticism? Understandable. But there are a lot of things I’ve tried that I’ll definitely never do again. As of today, kratom isn’t one of them.

Zack Ruskin is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Email: | Twitter: @zackruskin

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