It’s 8 AM on a Friday in Boystown and 26-year-old Danielle Larsen unlocks the door of the CBD Kratom shop. She has long black hair and wears black Converse sneakers, high-waisted jeans, and a green short-sleeved polo with the shop’s logo stitched on the front. The corner storefront is drenched with sunlight, filled with the not-too-loud pulsation of a Muse song, and ready to receive its first customer.
CBD, or cannabidiol, is a compound extracted from hemp. Hemp—unlike marijuana—is a cannabis-family plant that is legal in all 50 states and won’t get you high because it contains very low levels of the psychoactive compound THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). CBD, which has been credited with everything from soothing anxiety to abating seizures, can be extracted from marijuana plants, too (though the products sold at CBD Kratom are made with CBD derived only from hemp plants). Industrial production of hemp in Illinois is still in its infancy. So for now, CBD Kratom imports most of their CBD products from Colorado.
Kratom (pronounced KRAY-tum) refers to the powdered leaves of the Mitragyna speciosa tree, which is native to southeast Asia and produces an opioid compound that can be mildly psychoactive—lower doses can produce stimulating feelings akin to coffee, higher ones can produce feelings of euphoria or relaxation. (Opioids are any natural or synthetic substances that act on the brain’s opioid receptors, like OxyContin, methadone, or opium poppy derivatives like heroin and morphine.) Kratom is much less researched than CBD. It’s raised concerns for its addictive potential and has been tenuously linked to a few dozen overdose deaths around the country. The FDA has banned imports of kratom from some manufacturers and distributors and there have been reports of the powder being sold with adulterants ranging from sawdust to PCP. CBD Kratom swears by the purity and safety of its kratom supply, which comes from a grower in Indonesia.
The Boystown shop is part of a Saint Louis-based chain with 18 locations around the country. The company was founded in 2016 by David Palatnik and his wife, Dafna Revah. Palatnik and his brother were already running a head-shop chain and he set out to retail CBD and kratom in a space designed to buck the negative stigma of a weed-adjacent business.
The shop is airy, with a wood-laminate floor and high ceiling. The interior design is generally inviting, if a bit reminiscent of an artsy teenage girl’s room. There are quirky hand-painted signs (“You deserve to relax”) and drawings of human anatomical systems on black chalkboard panels. Fake plants are interspersed with real ones. Tall glass display cases ring the perimeter of the floor where much of the CBD inventory is kept under lock and key—everything from $2.95 lollipops infused with 10 mg of the compound to $59.95 “shatters,” crumbly substances with up to 1,000 mg of CBD per gram. There are vials of CBD drops to be administered under the tongue, topical creams and lip balms infused with CBD, bath bombs, chocolate, honey, and even dog treats, which are especially popular around the Fourth of July to ease the stress of fireworks for furry friends.
Shea Petersen, a 24-year-old aspiring actor who works at the shop because his other passion is homeopathic and natural medicine, says CBD drops help tremendously with his scoliosis and fibromyalgia. When he’s in a play he usually downs a couple of the shop’s CBD-infused carbonated waters backstage to stay relaxed.
The first customer, a petite and tan middle-aged blond woman in black leggings, bronze sneakers, and aviator sunglasses, strides in at 8:15. She’s a regular who asks for two strains of kratom powder from a wall of small wooden crates behind the counter. “People will get it to replace coffee,” Larsen tells me later. The shop classifies kratom types as reds (euphoria), greens (energy), and whites (relaxation). One customer might turn to a strain of powder for pain relief while another uses it for restful sleep. Others don’t respond to kratom at all.
Mornings are for kratom customers. They stream in at a steady clip—a rotund, bearded young man in a bright blue “Suck it Trebek” T-shirt; a woman in high-end athletic gear with an infant on her hip; a trim, bespectacled middle-aged man in jeans and an ultralight down jacket. The CBD folks usually flow in later, Larsen says. In the five hours I spent at the shop, 27 customers came in, about half looking for CBD and the other half for kratom. Twenty-two of the customers that day were white, and 15 of them were white men. One man in a camouflage cap with the U.S. Air Force logo came in for several kratom capsule packets. He’s a regular who uses kratom to manage pain and avoid prescription opioids and travels from Wisconsin, where kratom is banned, Petersen explains.
One of the glass cases along the wall draws particular attention from customers—the top shelves are lined with small bottles of tinctures, the bottom ones with glass jars of dried hemp flower buds and pre-rolled joints. Hemp flowers look and smell just like weed buds and can be smoked the same as their psychoactive cousin. The shop sells vapes and hemp oil cartridges for e-cigarettes, too. Larsen says she recommends going straight home after buying hemp buds, lest a police officer stops you and thinks it’s marijuana.
“Cops will come in and you can tell they’re just looking for something illegal to happen,” Petersen says. They always eye the dried flower with suspicion, but he adds that some officers are customers who bring colleagues to the shop in an attempt to educate them about CBD. Also uneducated? Reporters. A while back, they recalled, K2 (aka spice, aka spike, aka synthetic marijuana) was in the news.
“We had people from the Tribune coming in here,” Larsen says. “It was like this older man with white hair and I think he was wearing khakis and he was saying ‘Say, you got any spice?'” she puts on a hokey voice. “And we’re like ‘No, it’s not legal.’ Plus I feel like [selling it would] be super straying away from our theme here.” That theme being health and wellness, she implied—not psychosis.
Since CBD and kratom aren’t regulated, there’s no systematic quality control over the products sold in retail stores. Customers have little assurance beyond their own googling, manufacturers’ labels, and the words of the shopkeepers. Larsen and Petersen seem to take their responsibility to inform and warn customers of their products’ effects seriously. They have lengthy conversations with visitors and aren’t pushy with sales pitches.
“People come to us and talk about everything they’re dealing with and so we’re like stand-in therapists,” Larsen says. “We don’t give any medical advice but I feel like people just want to be heard. Most people who come in will be dealing with a lot of anxiety or some other issues where they want to take CBD as an extra helper.”
As the morning wound down and the clerks had takeout from the nearby Chicago Diner, I bought and ate a caramel infused with 30 mg of CBD. It had a satisfying balance of sugar and a soft, chewy consistency. About an hour later, I felt good. Maybe it was my brain awash in CBD. Or perhaps just the normal relaxation brought by the tide of an impending weekend.
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