Florida lawmakers want to regulate kratom.

Chelsea “Zeana” Jackson drinks a Walter White at Mad Hatters Ethnobotanical Tea Bar in St. Petersburg. The drink contains kratom, a substance that Florida legislators have taken steps toward regulating. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Published Mar. 6|Updated Mar. 6

In recent weeks, Florida legislators have taken steps toward regulating kratom, a controversial substance derived from the dried leaves of a tropical Southeast Asian tree. In recent years, its popularity has skyrocketed in the U.S., including Florida, in part because of its purported opiate-like effects and widespread availability.

Kratom is brewed into teas and mixed into sweetened mocktails. It’s sold at electronic cigarette and tobacco shops. You can purchase it at gas stations. You can order it online. You can even get it delivered on UberEats.

The substance is not specifically regulated at the federal level, but several states have passed legislation similar to what’s proposed in Florida. At least some parts of the “Florida Kratom Consumer Protection Acts” making their way through the state House and Senate mirror legislative efforts around the country spearheaded by the American Kratom Association, a nonprofit organization that wants to see kratom legalized and legitimized nationally. The bills would, among other things, limit kratom sales to those 21 and older.

What is kratom?

The kratom plant, or mitragyna speciosa, is a tropical evergreen tree that grows naturally in Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. The plant’s dried leaves have been used in traditional folk medicine for centuries but only started gaining popularity in the U.S. within the past few decades.

Some consider it a lifesaver, an alternative to prescription drugs and other opiates. In lighter doses, kratom can act as a stimulant, aiding with focus and energy. Its two primary alkaloids — mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine — activate the mu-opioid receptors in the brain. At higher doses, it can deliver pain relief and opiate-like effects, something that’s piqued the interest of researchers who are studying the plant for potential medicinal use.

Liquid kratom shots are pictured for sale at the Smoke Shop Factory in Tampa on Aug. 20, 2022.
Liquid kratom shots are pictured for sale at the Smoke Shop Factory in Tampa on Aug. 20, 2022.[ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

But kratom is not fully understood, said Chris McCurdy, a researcher at the University of Florida College of Pharmacy. McCurdy, who has been studying kratom for the past 17 years, considers it a “disrupter in the field” of pharmacology, with potential benefits for mental health and pain relief.

Some of kratom’s mood-altering responses are possibly from compounds that aren’t opiate-like at all, McCurdy said. Kratom may interact with the brain’s serotonin receptors and adrenergic receptors, which control our fight-or-flight reflexes.

Some argue that the substance, which has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, could do more harm than good — especially in its current, largely unregulated state. Federal authorities have issued stern warnings to potential kratom consumers, pointing to adverse health effects, including abuse, addiction and, in some cases, death.

How popular is kratom?

Kratom is cheap to purchase and profitable to sell. Wholesale distributors market and sell bulk kratom to regional distributors or directly to bars, electronic cigarette shops and some health food and nutritional supplement stores. Prices vary, but a 1-pound bag of kratom powder sold online or at a local smoke shop might go for around $80. Kratom is also sold in capsule or gummy form.

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There’s no real industry standard for how much kratom a person should consume, but online message boards for kratom users usually suggest starting with 2 to 4 grams per serving. Several places in St. Petersburg that sell drinks made with kratom and kava (a root from the South Pacific that’s also brewed into teas) said their “single” doses contain roughly 4 to 6 grams. Depending on the bar and what mixers are added to the drink, the prices can vary. An 8-ounce Black Flag kratom drink at Bula Kafe in St. Petersburg costs $5.16. At smoke shops and gas stations, a packet of 10 gummies costs about $26, while a bottle of 150 capsules can run around $30.

You can find kratom at electronic cigarette and tobacco shops.
You can find kratom at electronic cigarette and tobacco shops. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

An estimated 15 million people in the U.S. consume kratom, according to a 2021 economic impact statement commissioned by the Center for Plant Science and Health (now called the American Kratom Foundation), a nonprofit that conducts kratom policy analysis and research. That same study estimated that the kratom industry is worth $1.13 billion and is expected to continue to grow in the coming years.

Locally, the substance’s availability has created a burgeoning market for those looking to get into the kratom business. And because Florida’s subtropical climate lends itself to favorable growing conditions, an increasing number of agricultural enthusiasts are experimenting with farming the plant, further positioning the state for growth in the industry.

Kratom is legal everywhere in Florida except Sarasota County, which banned the substance in 2014 after labeling it a designer drug. The county looped it in with synthetic drugs like spice and bath salts, which had been outlawed in Florida the year before. Kratom is currently illegal in Virginia, Alabama, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Indiana and Arkansas and several cities and counties across the country.

What would the kratom bills do?

In Florida, anyone, regardless of their age, can legally buy kratom, though many local businesses that sell it say they have taken it upon themselves to enlist either 18- or 21-and-over limits. The kratom bills proposed by Republicans this legislative session would set a statewide age restriction on the sale of kratom.

The Senate version of the bill also would prohibit sellers from distributing kratom products that contain excess levels of 7-hydroxymitragynine — one of two primary psychoactive alkaloids present in kratom leaves that contribute to its opiate-like effects. It would require that sellers affix serving size suggestions to product packaging and ban sellers from marketing kratom as a cure or treatment for any disease. Kratom proprietors would have to register their products with the state — an amendment added to the bill just days ago.

Both bills propose punishing businesses that violate the rules with up to $1,000 fines.

They also each give the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services broad authority to regulate kratom. In order to perform the kind of testing and product inspection required by the Senate bill as initially filed, the department would have to hire an additional 25 full-time employees, the department noted in an analysis.

A variety of kratom-based products are pictured at the Smoke Shop Factory on Aug. 20, 2022, in Tampa.
A variety of kratom-based products are pictured at the Smoke Shop Factory on Aug. 20, 2022, in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The measures leave many questions unanswered. There are no guidelines on the number of kratom products a consumer may be sold. Unlike alcohol law, the bill does not discuss business liability if someone is harmed by legal kratom.

There are substantial differences between the House and Senate versions of the bills. While the Senate lays out a number of regulations and registration requirements, the House version was substantially pared back after its first committee stop. The only regulation currently spelled out in that measure is the age restriction. Lawmakers will have to work out the differences between the two measures if kratom regulations are to become Florida law.