Supervisor leads advocacy group for controversial herbal supplement

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Supervisor Pete Candland and his wife Robyn are well known for the two Cookies & Cream ice cream shops they own in Haymarket and Bristow. Lesser known is Candland’s other day job – a position that has him on the forefront of the fight to keep controversial herbal supplement kratom legal at the state and federal levels.

Candland, R-Gainesville, has quietly led the American Kratom Association as its executive director since 2016. Kratom, a plant-derived substance that has similar properties to opiates, is legal in the U.S. but has been banned in six states.

There are currently no laws regulating kratom at the federal level. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has recommended kratom’s active ingredient, mitragynine, be classified as a Schedule 1 drug, citing its “high potential for abuse” and morphine-like pharmacological effects. Other Schedule 1 drugs include heroin, marijuana and ecstasy.

In Virginia, there have been 26 fatal overdoses associated with kratom since 2015. All but three, however, have also involved other deadly drugs, including heroin and fentanyl, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

The American Kratom Association lobbies state and federal officials for the continued legalization and increased regulation of kratom products. The organization has successfully lobbied lawmakers in four states – Utah, Nevada, Georgia and Arizona — to pass the “Kratom Consumer Protection Act,” which sets regulatory requirements on kratom products while keeping it legal.

Those regulations include increased labeling and manufacturing guidelines; a ban on the sale of adulterated kratom products; and a ban on the sale of kratom to anyone under 18 years old.

Candland said the American Kratom Association’s focus is on keeping kratom uncontaminated and legal. Candland noted, however, in an interview Thursday, Aug. 15, that he does not personally lobby on behalf of the organization as its executive director.

“We don’t represent the vendors in the industry, we represent consumers, and our goal is to protect consumers and protect their right to consume kratom,” Candland said in a recent interview. “We believe that people should have the right to make their own choices about their health and well-being on whether they consume kratom or not.”

Candland was elected supervisor of the Gainesville District in 2011. All eight seats on the Prince William County Board of Supervisors are up for re-election in November. Candland is seeking a third term on the board and faces a challenge from Democrat Danny Funderburk.

Candland: Kratom an option ‘to get off opioids’

The American Kratom Association is funded primarily by individual donors and organizations interested in supporting the group’s mission of keeping kratom legal but regulated. Candland, who began working for the organization in 2016, said he has consumed kratom once and “didn’t feel a thing.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned consumers not to use kratom and said the plant has properties that expose users to the risks of addiction, abuse and dependence.

Advocates of kratom say it’s an effective pain reliever and can help treat the effects of anxiety and depression. Some kratom users also say it can ease the withdrawal symptoms of more potent opioids.

Candland said the supplement, which is typically consumed as a powder mixed into a tea-like drink or taken as a capsule, is a safer pain-management alternative to opioids and may help people struggling with opioid addiction kick the habit.

“The American Kratom Association takes the stance that we should be offering people more options over these deadly opioids, and not less options,” Candland said. “People definitely see it as an option for them to get off of opioids.”

Mac Haddow, who is a friend and longtime political associate of Candland’s, serves as American Kratom Association’s senior fellow on public policy. Haddow said it is inaccurate to compare kratom to opiates and notes the vast majority of kratom overdoses were caused by other drugs used in conjunction with the herb.

“Critics of kratom talk about how it harms people, but the truth is that it saves lives,” Haddow said. “We have one person every 11 minutes who dies of an opioid overdose in the United States. If kratom is helping them to stay off of opioids or ween off of opioids, that’s what we should be encouraging.”

In Virginia, 23 of the 26 overdose fatalities associated with kratom since 2015 were poly-drug-use overdoses primarily involving heroin, fentanyl or benzodiazepines.

There were 1,241 total drug overdose deaths involving opioids in Virginia in 2017, a rate of 14.8 deaths per 100,000 persons. Most of the fatalities were caused by heroin, fentanyl and prescription opioid overdoses, according to the state health department.

A consumer health report published by the Mayo Clinic in April stated that kratom products were unsafe for consumers.

“People who use kratom for relaxation report that because it is plant-based, it is natural and safe. However, the amount of active ingredient in kratom plants can vary greatly, making it difficult to gauge the effect of a given dose,” the report said. “Depending on what is in the plant and the health of the user, taking kratom may be very dangerous.”

Legal in Virginia, banned in six states

States that have banned kratom include Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Wisconsin, Vermont and Rhode Island. But it can be purchased over the counter at headshops and tobacco stores in most states, including Virginia.

There are several tobacco shops in Prince William and Manassas that sell kratom. A spokesman for the Prince William County Police Department said the department is treating kratom as a “high-risk substance.”

“We have run into it a little bit,” said Sgt. Jonathan Perok. “It is currently unregulated by the government and is not scheduled by the DEA. However, because it is unregulated, doses and methods for use, as well as lack of clinical testing for effectiveness, make kratom a high-risk substance.”

Pitbull Tobacco & More, a smoke and vape shop with four retail locations in the Virginia Beach area, said kratom sales account for 33% of the stores total sales. Director of Logistics Kelsey Meade said the company sells kratom to “all walks of life,” including active-duty military members. She said the sale of kratom products has increased steadily in the last few years.

“It’s a staple of our business and we would be devastated if it were to become illegal,” Meade said.

Members of the Prevention Alliance of Greater Prince William County, a coalition of community members who work to prevent addiction and promote treatment, only recently learned about Candland’s position with the American Kratom Association. Heather Martinsen, of Prince William County’s Community Services, said there has been no research to support claims that kratom is an effective alternative to opioid use.

“In the wake of the opioid crisis Kratom has been touted by some groups to be an alternative to opioid use. There is no scientific evidence, FDA-approved research to support that claim. These claims decrease the perception of harm around the use of Kratom therefore also increasing the risk of use or misuse,” Martinsen said.

Chrissy Marie Fauls, of the nonprofit Why, Inc. and a member of the group, said she is skeptical about the supplement’s ability to effectively treat opioid addiction.

“We don’t know enough about it,” Fauls said. “It needs to be regulated and children absolutely should not have their hands on it.”

Candland is arranging for someone from the American Kratom Association to speak to the alliance this fall, Martinsen said.

Clarification: This article has been updated to note that Supervisor Pete Candland says he is not personally involved in the American Kratom Association‘s lobbying efforts as its executive director. 

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that kratom is illegal in Washington D.C. Kratom is no longer illegal in Washington D.C. It was banned in 2016 but the ban was lifted in 2018. We regret the error. 

Reach Daniel Berti at dberti@fauquier.com

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