Debate over kratom hits the Heartland

CAPE GIRARDEAU, MO (KFVS) - There is an ongoing debate in the Heartland about kratom and whether the drug could help fight against the opioid epidemic or if it will only make it worse.

In February the herbal supplement was deemed by the Food and Drug Administration as a  dangerous drug with "opioid properties" and pharmacy director Grady Yount with St. Francis Medical Center agrees with the FDA's decision and said kratom is a public health hazard.

"It has all the risks associated with opioids like dependence," Yount said. "In high doses it can cause rapid heartbeat, confusion, drowsiness, and all the other side effects associated with opioids."

Jacob Yarbrough owns Karmic Genesis, a store that has been selling kratom in Cape Girardeau since August, and said he has helped hundreds of people fight their addictions to other drugs with the opioid substitute.

"We believe in the success stories and the quality of life improvement that it gives those people," Yarbrough said. "I've had people in tears thanking me for helping them or their loved ones get off those substances. If we were to take kratom away the overdose rate would go up because people are going to go back to using illicit drugs that are more dangerous."

One of Yarbrough's customers is U.S. Army veteran Israel Amerson who is an alumnus of Jackson High School.

After serving eight years and going through two combat tours, Amerson returned to Missouri in 2014 and was dealing with PTSD. The former infantryman said he discovered kratom when he was researching alternative options to medications that gave him side effects like anxiety, depression and suicidal ideations.

"Multiple times a day you have these issues where your heart start racing or you get these extremely dark thoughts or you're angry. You're miserable and you don't understand why," Amerson said. "Since I started taking kratom those things have subsided greatly. You feel much more at peace with things, the lethargy from depression goes away, you get this boost of energy and this feeling that everything is going to be alright."

Kratom comes from a plant grown in Southeast Asia and Yount said that is why the FDA and other pharmacists are concerned the imported herb can have a lot of variation in its potency and it's contents.

"The problem with natural products is that the FDA doesn't control them," Yount said "There is no consistency from product to product and there is no guarantee to the consumer what is actually in them. It can be altered with many other products that are not even related to kratom."

The FDA is aware of 44 kratom-associated deaths that have taken place from April of 2011 to December of 2017, and Yount said kratom usage in the country has become more widespread in the last few years.

"From 2000 to 2015 there were very few calls to poison control centers in the U.S. regarding kratom," Yount said. "From 2016 to present there have been over 600 calls to poison control centers in the U.S. involving kratom. We're seeing more of the problems associated with it related to overdose and poisoning."

Yarbrough, who is also a member of the American Kratom Association, believes it's impossible for a person to die from solely ingesting to much of the supplement. The store owner added that he has only had a handful of complaints from customer that have used his kratom products.

"There are no additives in kratom," Yarbrough said. "There is no scientific proof that it has harmful effects on your body. In fact it's quite the opposite. There are studies that say kratom helps with hypertension, that it helps lower blood pressure, that it might even prevent diabetes."

Amerson admitted that he was skeptical about kratom at first, but said the controversial herb broke his expectations and he is recommending other veterans consider taking the supplement that he calls 'a miracle.'

"It's replaced everything for me. Aspirin, Tylenol, ibuprofen," Amerson said. "Any of the stuff they prescribe me for anti-anxiety and anti-depression. I literally I take a spoonful of kratom in the morning and a spoonful of kratom in the afternoon, and I'm good all day. I've had two hip replacements, and I'm feet all day long working and I don't feel the pain."

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Copyright 2018 KFVS. All rights reserved. The AP contributed to this report.