Last week, Ohio police conducted a series of attacks on shops selling kratom before Thanksgiving, hinting at rumors that authorities might be preparing to launch a broader crackdown against a controversial herb that the authorities have recently announced their intention to ban.
But representatives from the Ohio agency who oversaw the sweep recently told HuffPost that this was not a sign of great things to come. The operation was rather an isolated action against specific kratom retailers who were breaking state law, they said. They also said that other vendors could avoid similar problems by implementing business practices that allow them to comply, at least in the eyes of the agency.
The kratom is derived from the dried leaves of a Southeast Asian tree of the coffee family. Often sold as a powder that can be packaged in pills or capsules or in tea, kratom has gained popularity in recent years, many sellers marketing it as a supplement herbal. Proponents say that kratom can help with opioid withdrawal, chronic pain, anxiety, depression and other conditions.
The US Food and Drug Administration and other state and federal agencies have argued that kratom has no approved medical use. Opponents of kratom pointed out that the most important active substances in the plant had opioid-like properties, which in their view proves that it is a drug that is addictive and may even be deadly – and must be banned.
In October, the Ohio Board of Pharmacy became the latest to join the campaign against kratom when it voted in favor of classifying botany as a controlled substance in Appendix I, alongside drugs such as heroin and synthetic opioids. Although kratom remains legal in Ohio for the moment, this is not what it seemed last Wednesday, when police came to Life of Kratom store in Worthington.
"They had like 10 police officers, the chief of police, he was crazy," said owner Jack Smith at HuffPost.
The officers did not confiscate anything, but they locked Smith's inventory after accusing him of selling an "unapproved" substance, he said. At least 10 other stores in central Ohio have received similar visits, the Ohio Department of Agriculture told HuffPost.
Consumers and kratom sellers quickly realized that this measure was a sign that the prohibition had officially begun in Ohio. But that does not seem to be the case.
All affected kratom businesses last week were found to be in violation of state law, said Mark Bruce, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Agriculture, who said supervised the raids. In Ohio, any product that does not have FDA "generally accepted as safe" approval can not be sold or marketed for human consumption in a food or drug, Bruce said.
"If a company sells kratom and its packaging, website or related marketing materials indicate or infers that it is ingested by humans, we consider that it is about Adulterated product, "he said.
The sale of kratom in pill or capsule form or in an edible food such as a brownie or candy – all of which are clearly designed to be consumed – would therefore not be acceptable. It can be sold in powder form.
State law also prohibits retailers from making unproven statements about the medical benefits of products like kratom, said Terri Gerhardt, chief of the Ohio Food Safety Division. Sellers can not tell clients that kratom is a treatment for opioid addiction or a natural painkiller, for example.
An investigation revealed that all targeted stores were in violation of some or all of these rules, added Gerhardt, adding that the investigation had been conducted as a result of a complaint filed by a local health department about practices in a few stores.
"We have a legal responsibility to investigate complaints when they reach us," she said.
But Gerhardt insisted that the fact that these kratom vendors broke the law did not mean they would be permanently closed. In fact, she added, retailers could still sell kratom provided they adapt their packaging, marketing materials and product offerings to ensure there is no reason to believe that kratom that they carry is actually meant to be consumed.
"We do not prevent them from selling it. We are preventing them from selling it and promoting it as food, "Gerhardt said. "I like to tell people that you can sell a newt's eye and a dragon's tail, you can not tell anyone what they can do with it."
These changes may include adding labels to products, identifying them simply as "kratom", without additional instructions on how to use them. Vendors could also add labels explicitly stating that their kratom products are "not intended for human consumption". They have turned to this loophole in other cities and jurisdictions in the country, some using misleading labeling to sell synthetic cannabinoids or new psychoactive substances.
We can not talk about what the FDA would do.
Mark Bruce, Department of Agriculture of Ohio
This approach may satisfy the powers in place in Ohio, but it is unclear how much protection it could possibly offer to FDA regulators, who have taken a much more aggressive stance against kratom.
"If the product is labeled" Not for human consumption " [the Ohio Department of Agriculture] would take no action – but we can not talk about what the FDA would do, "said Bruce, spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture.
Advocates of the natural supplements industry have warned retailers that deliberately labeling products on labels may open them up for prosecution.
The new procedures are far from perfect, HuffPost told a representative of the American Kratom Association, the largest Kratom defense group in the country. AKA said it had contacted the National Agricultural Agency in the hope of finding a compromise that would give sellers additional leeway to sell a wider range of products without have to resort to potentially fraudulent tactics.
For the moment, however, the kratom stores in Ohio seem to be doing everything in their power to comply with the advice given by the state authorities.
On Tuesday, Kratom's life was back. The only thing Smith is currently selling is raw kratom powder, he said.
"They spent so much money and taxpayer money shutting me down," Smith said. "I felt bad for my clients, because it helped a lot of people."