“Probably the biggest issue has been keeping the kratom in stock,” said Calhoon, gesturing to a row of empty jars on a shelf at Kratom Bar, 1005 N. 12th St.
Calhoon’s company — advertised as being “behind Arby’s” on sandwich boards set up along North Avenue and in downtown Clifton — is one of several local businesses selling the currently unregulated powdered tree leaf substance, which proponents say can be useful for assuaging pain, reducing anxiety, boosting energy and even as an antidote to opioid withdrawal.
While kratom remains legal in Colorado and federally, various health and government agencies have cautioned that the plant is potentially dangerous and addictive.
State officials are taking a stance of encouraging education for people considering using kratom, according to Dr. Daniel Vigil, an epidemiologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
“It hasn’t been well-studied, but evidence suggests that it can cause dependence or addiction for some people who use it,” Vigil said.
“I would say that the risk of respiratory depression, seizures with higher doses and the fact that it’s been implicated in combination with other drugs in some deaths in Colorado certainly call for caution in using it,” Vigil said.
The issue of whether kratom can lead to a deadly overdose is in question.
Vigil’s department studied Colorado death certificates between 1999 and 2017, and found 15 that mentioned kratom.
In 11 of those cases, other drugs were listed on the certificates; in three others, researchers were able to retest blood samples, and found that other drugs besides kratom were present.
“Based on those … if (kratom) is involved in death, it seems to be in connection with other drugs,” Vigil said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has taken a stronger stance, actively warning people against using kratom. The Mayo Clinic this spring published an article listing kratom’s side effects including breathing suppression, hallucination and liver damage, and noting that it can adversely affect infant development when used by pregnant mothers.
Local kratom sellers said they think those warnings are exaggerated.
Max Sterling, the proprietor of Mad Max’s Postapocalyptic Smokeshop & Armory at 1600 North Ave., said he doesn’t take the Mayo Clinic’s report at face value considering how little research has been done on the plant.
“Some of those just sound way off,” Sterling said. “You have to kind of put it in perspective. Coffee is really addictive. Sugar is one of the most addictive substances on the planet.”
Sterling said he wasn’t a blind believer in kratom.
“I did have a moral conundrum when I started doing it,” he said. “I did research.”
Sterling said he sampled kratom himself and had people he knows try it as well, as well as read articles and watched a documentary about the substance.
He said he became convinced that kratom could be helpful in helping wean people off opiates. He has been selling the substance for a little more than a year now, and has customers of all ages, many of whom use kratom like he does, as a treatment for back problems.
“It’s something that I really do believe in,” Sterling said.
Calhoon, who used to run a carpet-cleaning company before opening Kratom Bar six weeks ago, said he first got acquainted with the plant when his sister offered it as a hangover cure several years ago.
Calhoon said he doesn’t believe the Mayo Clinic’s report and doesn’t have safety concerns, and pointed to the fact that deaths linked to kratom seem to have mainly come from “adulterated kratom.”
Calhoon said he does on occasion ask people for identification and labels his packaging for 18 and up, despite the lack of regulation. But despite his shop’s location across the street from Colorado Mesa University, Calhoon said most of his customers have been between 30 and 50 years old.
Sterling said he makes it a point not to recommend kratom as an alternative to anything. Instead, if someone has questions about the plant, he recommends they do their own research first. If people question whether it’s addictive, he sends people to online forums where kratom users discuss their experiences.
Sterling said if kratom is banned, he will of course stop carrying it, but he hopes that doesn’t happen, and he’d like to see more research done on the plant.
“If it’s getting people off of opiates, then by golly, I know which one I’d prefer,” Sterling said.