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Updated November 03, 2018 07:53 AM
Jack Smith can tell stories about the thrills of driving trucks in NASCAR races, but he said he’s far more gratified selling an herb called kratom from his small shop at the Shops at Worthington Place.
Life of Kratom specializes in just one item, made from the ground-up leaves of a southeast Asian tree. Smith said people have told him it helps with post-traumatic stress disorder, heroin withdrawal and pain that once was controlled by opioids. One 77-year-old man, Smith said, calls it “the fountain of youth” because it gives him energy.
“That’s really satisfying to me because I’ve lived in that limelight all my life, in racing and NASCAR,” he said. “I get more enjoyment out of this than I ever did NASCAR. Ever.”
But the State of Ohio Board of Pharmacy says kratom is dangerous, addictive and possibly fatal to users. The panel has proposed classifying the main active ingredients in kratom — mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine — as schedule I controlled substances. The classification would place the ingredients in the category of drugs such as heroin, LSD and cocaine, effectively banning kratom.
Ali Simon, public- and policy-affairs liaison for the pharmacy board, said kratom has been banned in Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Rhode Island, Vermont, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia. It has also been banned in Denver, San Diego and Sarasota, Florida, according to the board’s resolution proposing the classification.
The Ohio resolution says the substance has a history of use as a substitute for opium in southeast Asia and is classified as a controlled substance in 16 countries, including Thailand and Malaysia.
Kratom leaves are typically crushed and consumed in capsules or used in tea. The leaves are sometimes smoked or eaten raw.
On Wednesday, Smith welcomed a steady stream of visitors into his store. Many had never tried kratom, so he offered samples, mixing the bitter-tasting powdered substance with orange juice. He also offers kratom in capsules and chocolate bars.
Among his regular customers is Vanessa Bettinger, a 38-year-old restaurant manager from the Northwest Side who uses kratom for pain in a shoulder and knee and her back. She chooses it over medications that she knows could become addictive.
Information-technology specialist Rick Spires, 36, of the Grove City area, has used kratom for about a month to control attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and in place of energy drinks.
George Perkins, 68, a friend of Smith’s in Indiana, said by phone that kratom has helped him keep nutrients in his body after expensive medications failed to control his digestive system following surgery to remove part of his colon.
Smith said he’s not opposed to regulation that ensures that consumers receive an unadulterated product; he just doesn’t want kratom taken away from the people it helps.
The Drug Enforcement Administration lists kratom as a drug of chemical concern, according to the state report, and the Food and Drug Administration has issued a public-health advisory urging consumers not to use it.
And, Simon said, the state health department found that six death certificates in Ohio from 2016 and 2017 listed kratom as a cause of death.
Brad Lander, clinical director of addiction medicine at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, said the center’s Talbot Hall for substance abuse has treated some people for kratom addiction using the same criteria used for opioid addiction.
“The bottom line is that there are some good, positive properties to it, but it’s pretty dangerous for society in general the way people use drugs,” Lander said.
The pharmacy board received more the 6,000 emailed comments on the proposal by an Oct. 18 deadline. Simon said the board will review them in December. If the panel decides to pursue the rule, it will be subject to additional public-comment periods.
Among those speaking out is the American Kratom Association, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that presented a petition requesting that the board rescind its proposal.
Smith, who lives in Delaware County, suffered a broken neck while racing in 2007, and he subsequently was addicted to opioids for three years. After going through rehab, he was depressed but didn’t want to take antidepressants. That’s when a friend suggested kratom.
“I cried,” he said. “Like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m back to Jack.’ You know, the original Jack before I went to pain pills.
“It’s changed my life that much.”