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Thousands Say Kratom Cured Their Addiction. The Government Says It’s Just Another Opioid.

Is kratom the answer to the opioid crisis — or the start of a new one?

Last updated on July 6, 2018, at 1:49 p.m. ET

Posted on June 25, 2018, at 1:57 p.m. ET

By the time Courtney True found the Reddit thread about kratom in December 2016, she hadn’t touched an opioid for 48 hours. She was in bad shape — stomach cramps, diarrhea, jitters, hot sweats, cold sweats, and body aches that made even her teeth hurt. Sitting at her kitchen table hunched over a laptop, she recalled, “I felt like I wanted to rip my skin off and step out of it.”

True had been dependent on opioids since she was a 14-year-old growing up in Mississippi, when a doctor prescribed her Percocet to treat chronic migraines. By the age of 24, she was shooting OxyContin. A decade after that — after moving to Maine, becoming a nurse, and having two kids — the Drug Enforcement Administration cracked down on sketchy online pharmacies that sold pills, and True started on heroin.

She’d tried to quit many times over the years, using every conceivable remedy for the misery of withdrawal — Imodium A-D, quinine, valerian root. Nothing worked. So here she was, reading earnest online testimonials about an obscure leaf from Southeast Asia.

“It seemed kinda seedy, it seemed kinda underground, and kinda maybe like something I shouldn’t be doing,” True, now 41, told BuzzFeed News. “But at that point I was desperate enough to give it a try.”

Her husband drove her a half hour to a smoke shop in downtown Portland. She bought a little of everything: a small bag of crushed kratom leaves, some capsules, and two tiny bottles of extracts, all for about $100.

Back in the car, heater blasting, she swallowed some of the capsules and downed a bottle, then sat waiting, skeptically, to feel something like a high. She never did, but within 20 minutes her withdrawal symptoms had faded away. "It was like a fog had cleared," True said. "They were just gone."

Courtney True with two of her dogs at her home in Maine.
Yoon S. Byun for BuzzFeed News

Courtney True with two of her dogs at her home in Maine.

Now 18 months have passed, and True has been heroin-free for 17. She drinks a murky kratom-grapefruit juice mix several times a day, and credits the plant for saving not only her own life, but also her family’s. Her husband, John Wolstenhulme, had a 20-plus-year opioid addiction, and her 27-year-old stepson, Jeff Wolstenhulme, used fentanyl. Both are now off of opioids — John for 16 months, Jeff for almost four — thanks to kratom, they say. True convinced her mother in Mississippi to use it to treat her irritable bowel syndrome. She even gives it to her dogs for their joint pain and anxiety. “Sometimes I just sprinkle it in their food,” she said, laughing.

Kratom is a billion-dollar business, with thousands of vendors selling it to an estimated 3 million to 5 million people.

True is part of a growing grassroots movement of former drug users who see kratom as the cheap, safe, “all-natural” way to curb the opioid epidemic killing more than 40,000 people in the US every year. The once-obscure botanical has become big enough to warrant its own lobbyists in Washington, DC — the American Kratom Association, which claims that kratom is a billion-dollar business, with thousands of vendors selling it to an estimated 3 million to 5 million people.

Its proponents range from Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch to bro podcaster Joe Rogan to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. In Facebook groups and Reddit threads, tens of thousands of people obsess over the best suppliers, dosages, recipes, and strains for every possible ailment, but mostly for kicking their opioid addictions. In March, the country’s first rehab facility to use kratom opened a few miles from True’s house.

There's just one problem. The government is in secret talks to possibly ban the plant, suspecting that kratom is not the answer to the opioid crisis, but the start of a new one.

Dried and crushed kratom leaves.
Yoon S. Byun for BuzzFeed News

Dried and crushed kratom leaves.

At issue is its chemistry: Kratom latches on to some of the same brain receptors that heroin, morphine, and fentanyl do. From the government’s perspective, that makes kratom an opioid like any other, and too dangerous to leave unregulated.

“Claiming that kratom is benign because it’s ‘just a plant’ is shortsighted and dangerous,” FDA chief Scott Gottlieb said in a statement released earlier this year. The agency has circulated notices about kratom strains contaminated with salmonella and has linked the plant to the deaths of 44 people. Last month, the FDA sent warning letters to three distributors for making unproven claims about kratom’s ability to treat pain, opioid addiction, and cancer.

“We’re firing warning shots,” an FDA spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “You’re going to see us crack down.”

People struggling with addiction, Gottlieb said, should instead rely on FDA-approved medications like methadone and Suboxone. But kratom advocates point out that these drugs are too often inaccessible to the uninsured, don’t work for some people, and can be abused. When feeling conspiratorial, they go so far as to say that the FDA is in cahoots with Big Pharma to purge kratom from the market so they can hook addicts on more prescription opioids.

But beyond a few medical case reports and animal studies on kratom dependence, there isn’t much science to support the idea that the plant is safe — or that it’s dangerous. No one knows yet whether kratom really works long-term. Or whether the people who love it, like True’s family, have just swapped one opioid addiction for another.

One thing is clear: The battle over kratom is swiftly coming to a head. “We are at the foot of a revolution,” True said. “This is about to blow up.”

True and her husband, John Wolstenhulme, at their home in Maine.
Yoon S. Byun

True and her husband, John Wolstenhulme, at their home in Maine.

The worst day of Courtney’s addiction came about six months before she tried kratom, on Mother’s Day 2016. As was common in those days, she got in a blowout fight with her 12-year-old daughter. Then her 15-year-old son found his mother’s stash of needles, took a picture on his phone, and texted it to his dad, True’s ex-husband, who came and took the kids away.

Feeling hopeless, True downed a whole bottle of pills. Soon afterward, she sat down on her daughter’s bed and realized she had made a big mistake. Her husband took her to the hospital, where nurses told him it was too late to pump her stomach. “That’s when the reality really set in,” Wolstenhulme said. “It was just about whether she could make it through or not. It was a shitshow.”

In the months after she came home, the pieces of her life that had been barely held together started rapidly falling apart. Her ex-husband took their kids. She lost her nursing license, high-paying job, and health insurance. Broke from buying drugs, she fell behind on her mortgage and the bank put her house up for sale. Then one night, after shooting heroin and getting drunk with Wolstenhulme, they got in a fight that turned violent.

“We woke up the next day and were like, either we’re going to kill each other or one of us is just going to die,” True said, standing in her kitchen and pulling drags from her vape. “I wanted my kids back. I wanted to get it together.”

“This plant right here saved my life and gave me life.”

True is tall and steely-eyed. The only visible sign of how bad things once were is her chipped front tooth, which she believes is a side effect of the 12 years she spent taking Suboxone, a prescription containing an opioid that helps some people manage their addictions. That drug made her feel numb, she said, and never relieved her “discontent” — the restlessness or spiritual boredom that would inevitably propel her back into her drug use.

The first thing that helped fill that hole, she said, was the 12-step program she joined after losing her kids. She still goes to the “fellowship,” as she calls it, along with her family. The program pushes for abstinence and helped her stop taking heroin and pills. But quitting Suboxone — and being completely free of opioids — was harder. “I could make it three days, tops,” she said. “I would still get deathly ill every time.”

So she searched online for help and found lots of groups — mostly on Reddit, Facebook, and niche drug forums like Erowid and Bluelight — preaching the gospel of kratom.

“Kratom is god’s gift to man,” said one Redditor. “This plant right here saved my life and gave me life,” reads a popular meme showing the plant’s shiny, oblong leaves, shared on Facebook with the green heart emojis that have become a shorthand for kinship through kratom.

True adds grapefruit juice to kratom and Moringa.
Yoon S. Byun

True adds grapefruit juice to kratom and Moringa.

The kratom obsessives discuss how to make the bitter plant palatable by stirring the green powder into juice, brewing it into a sweet tea, pouring it into capsules, or just chasing it with whatever liquid is on hand — water, Gatorade, warm Fanta, and even pickle juice. Armchair chemists discuss trial-and-error attempts at making kratom stronger with citric acid (“acidify when extracting, then basify before consumption”) or turmeric or black seed oil. Others suggest combinations of white, red, and green strains that will prompt wildly different effects (white is energizing, red calming, and green somewhere in the middle).

Real chemists have shown that at low doses, kratom — a tall, skinny tree in the coffee family — acts as a mild stimulant and mood booster, making it a popular herb for centuries among manual laborers on rubber plantations in Indonesia, Thailand, and other parts of Southeast Asia. At higher doses, kratom has a much more prized effect: It kills pain. The nerdier Reddit threads cite pharmacology studies to chronicle the plant’s 25 major chemicals, called alkaloids, some of which have been shown to bind to opioid receptors even more tightly than potent opioids like morphine.

These communities see kratom as a panacea for a bewilderingly broad set of problems. Some described how it got them through 12-hour shifts at Panera and Popeyes. One person said it helped them ace a math test. Others said kratom fixed their stutter, lifted the fog of a decadelong depression, cured insomnia, cured alcoholism, cured PMS, eased chronic pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease, and was “a miracle drug” for erectile dysfunction.

Most of the threads, though, describe how the plant offers “freedom from opiates.” Users claim that it’s impossible to die from kratom — that it would force your body to vomit before you could overdose, and that it doesn’t slow breathing like heroin and prescription opioids do. (These claims have not been backed up by any clinical studies in people, since none exist.)

These threads often veer into rants about the pharmaceutical industry, which sparked the opioid crisis.

“The FDA is scared that kratom will take away from the profits of Big Pharma,” Mike Gill, an administrator of one of the bigger kratom Facebook groups, once posted. “Big Pharma funds the FDA...Big Pharma Lobbies the FDA = Big Pharma OWNS the FDA!”

Employees fill and weigh kratom in the production area of the Taunton Bay Soap Company in Sullivan, Maine.
Yoon S. Byun for BuzzFeed News

Employees fill and weigh kratom in the production area of the Taunton Bay Soap Company in Sullivan, Maine.

In September 2016, deep in what locals affectionately call “Stephen King country” a few hours north of Portland, Maine, the owners of the Taunton Bay Soap Company were working around the clock to sell every ounce of their kratom inventory, bracing for a ban.

The DEA had recently announced its intention to make the two main compounds in kratom — mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine — Schedule I controlled substances, a label given to heroin and other drugs with high potential for abuse. The agency cited a CDC report showing that the number of calls about kratom to poison control centers had increased tenfold, from 26 calls in 2010 to 263 in 2015.

The new label, which would make selling or possessing kratom a federal crime, would go into effect within a month, “to avoid an imminent hazard to the public safety.” The last thing Taunton Bay wanted was DEA agents knocking down their doors.

“The plan was, as of Sept. 30, we’d be out of product,” said Veronika Bamford-Connors, who runs the business with her ex-husband, Norm Bamford. “On Oct. 1 we were in there with hoses, bleach, squeegees — you name it, it was gone.”

Veronika Bamford-Connors, Dereck Connors, Norm Bamford, and Brad Allen Bamford at Taunton Bay Soap Company.
Yoon S. Byun for BuzzFeed News

Veronika Bamford-Connors, Dereck Connors, Norm Bamford, and Brad Allen Bamford at Taunton Bay Soap Company.

Veronika and Norm don’t fit the typical picture of drug kingpins: He’s an Air Force veteran and pastor; she took care of their five kids as a stay-at-home mom until he came out as gay and they divorced. They’re political moderates in favor of small government, and have never “touched drugs of any type,” Norm said.

They were introduced to kratom when her second husband, Dereck Connors, used it to kick a decades-long opioid addiction and manage his debilitating back pain. Veronika, who initially suspected that her husband’s “drug past” was leading him to seek out a new, legal high, was soon won over, and she began taking kratom herself to treat the pain she’d had from ovarian cysts since her teens. Unlike other meds, she said, it didn’t feel like she was “on something.”

When Norm got kidney stones, she convinced him to try it too. “About 15 minutes passed, and the pain was gone,” he said. Even more surprising: The plant seemed to quell the severe PTSD he had acquired after two tours in South Korea, which had left him so anxious that he startled even when a phone rang. “I wasn’t afraid anymore,” he said. “And I wasn’t high.”

In 2014, Dereck launched one of the first kratom Facebook groups and watched it take off. Then a group member went to Indonesia on a Christian ministry trip, met a kratom farmer, and put Dereck in touch. Soon the farmer was sending the green powder directly to Dereck, who started the business. A year later, Norm and Veronika took over.

At the beginning, their company sold about 1,100 pounds of kratom in a good month, mostly from online sales. By the time the DEA threatened its ban, they were shipping more than three times as much.

Some 140,000 people signed a White House petition to keep kratom legal.

The agency’s announcement triggered an angry backlash from “kratom warriors,” as the American Kratom Association calls them, who shared petitions and lawmakers’ contact information. “(202) 305-8500 DEA PHONE NUMBER CALL THE DAYLIGHTS OUT OF IT,” one Facebook user wrote. They also planned a rally at the White House.

Veronika, Norm, and Dereck rented cars and drove down to DC, picking up fellow Facebook group members in every state along the way, and putting 20 people up in DC hotel rooms. Around 400 kratom users marched, drinking kratom tea, wearing T-shirts like “kratom saved my mom,” and chanting slogans like “plants not pills.”

Some 140,000 people signed a White House petition to keep kratom legal, and more than 60 members of Congress, spearheaded by supplement industry ally Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, compelled the DEA to hold a public comment period to reconsider their decision, which resulted in more than 23,000 responses.

In October, the agency cited these comments in its decision to back down from scheduling kratom. It punted the decision to the FDA, asking for a medical evaluation of kratom and a scheduling recommendation.

Ironically, the DEA scare gave a big boost to Taunton Bay’s business: Veronika and Norm now ship nearly 2.5 tons of kratom a month to people across the country. But it also spurred them to radically change their business practices.

They switched their supplier, replacing the Indonesian farmer with a middleman so they couldn’t be charged with violating the national import ban on kratom imposed by the FDA since 2014. They now test their products for contaminants like mold and lead, and post their lab results online for full transparency. When packing the bricks of powder into individual vacuum-sealed baggies, their 17 employees wear plastic coveralls, hairnets, and masks. Each bag is marked with a sticker that says contents are “for research usage” and “not intended to treat or cure any illness or disease.” On their website, it’s called Asian Tea, not kratom, and you’ll find no mention of buying “kilos” of the plant — only 2.2-pound shipments — to avoid any “druggie-seeming” lingo.

“We feel that if we regulate ourselves, maybe the FDA will see that,” said Dereck, tying his oversize Bob Marley fleece around his shoulders. “They’ll see we’re not just a bunch of thugs. We’re trying to be as compliant as anybody can be.”

Even their name, the Taunton Bay Soap Company, directs attention to the other items for sale at the old Masonic lodge that serves as their storefront: goat’s milk soaps, loose-leaf teas, and Maine tchotchkes.

But the real moneymaking operation — now bringing in more than $1.4 million in yearly sales — is downstairs and hidden from sight.

Yoon S. Byun

In February of this year, the FDA released an alarming figure: By its count, 44 deaths in the US had been linked to kratom.

Critics immediately pointed out that all but one of the deceased had had other substances in their system, too, from benzodiazepines to fentanyl. But to the FDA, that only raised the possibility that kratom has deadly interactions with other drugs.

“If you were taking an FDA-approved opioid, you would know exactly what other drugs you’re not supposed to be taking with it,” an agency spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “We don’t have that with kratom — nobody does.”

Only one of the reported deaths, a 26-year-old police sergeant in upstate New York, involved kratom and no other substances. Franklin County Coroner Shawn Stuart told BuzzFeed News that a high concentration of mitragynine was in the man’s system. The official cause of death was hemorrhagic pulmonary edema, in which blood fills the lungs, caused by an accidental overdose of kratom.

“It’s possible that we see more people die from drinking too much water every year."

Stuart said the death was the first time he had encountered kratom in his career as a coroner, and he wasn’t sure what to make of the debate over its safety. “It’s possible that we see more people die from drinking too much water every year. Or taking too much Tylenol,” Stuart said. “All we’re doing is reporting that in this case, kratom was the cause of death.”

So kratom’s potential to kill is still unclear. But many users have gotten sick from kratom contamination. By late May, the CDC reported that 199 people in 41 states had been infected with salmonella spread through the kratom supply, 50 of whom were hospitalized for symptoms including high fevers, severe cramping, and diarrhea.

Bacterial contamination isn’t uncommon in the food supply, from eggs to romaine lettuce. But those risks are arguably bigger for an unregulated product like kratom, which anybody can sell with no oversight.

“You’ll see people on the Facebook groups claiming to be vendors, but posting pictures packing up their kratom in sandwich bags on their beds, with their dogs in the background,” Taunton Bay’s Bamford-Connors said. “That makes us all look bad. The community has to fight that perception.”

That’s why many wholesalers like Taunton Bay want kratom to be regulated — but as a dietary supplement. Kratom Facebook group founders have spent “thousands of hours,” Connors said, searching for any receipt for a US kratom purchase before 1994. Such documentary evidence could protect kratom from FDA rules governing most drugs, grandfathering it into a controversial law passed in that year that keeps the agency’s hands off most supplements.

Another route would be to get it approved as a “new dietary ingredient,” but the FDA has shut down all four applications that have been submitted thus far, since no one can definitively prove that kratom is safe.

In the meantime, the agency has quietly submitted their recommendation about whether kratom should be a scheduled drug to the DEA, which is still deliberating how to move forward.

“Based on the things [the FDA has] put out recently about kratom, I don’t think anyone would be surprised about where they fall on this,” DEA spokesperson Rusty Payne told BuzzFeed News. “When the FDA comes to us and says a certain substance should be a medicine, we are bound by that. When something is deemed a threat, we act.”

If it does get banned, the US will follow in the footsteps of 16 other countries, including the UK, Germany, Sweden, and even two places, Thailand and Malaysia, where kratom is natively grown.

Roxanne Gullikson shows the "Red Borneo" kratom variety in capsule form at Greener Pastures.
Yoon S. Byun

Roxanne Gullikson shows the "Red Borneo" kratom variety in capsule form at Greener Pastures.

From poppies to ephedra to cannabis, people have been turning plants into medicine for more than 60,000 years. Today, out of the 252 drugs considered “essential” by the World Health Organization, 11% are exclusively derived from plants.

The difference between essential medicine and dangerous drug has historically been tough to pin down. Coca-Cola’s name comes from the coca plant, its signature ingredient before cocaine became illegal. Heroin was first derived to treat morphine addiction, or “narcomania”; now it’s illegal, and morphine prescribed. And OxyContin, the legal painkiller that made its manufacturer a reported $35 billion, launched a national epidemic.

Which is why kratom’s chemical makeup — and specifically, whether it’s an opioid — is the subject of such fierce debate. Researchers have long known at least two of its alkaloids — mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine — latch on to what’s called the mu-opioid receptor in the brain, the same one that responds to morphine and heroin and triggers pain relief.

The difference between essential medicine and dangerous drug has historically been tough to pin down.

But classical opioids also activate a different chain of molecules when binding to the receptors, signaling the brain stem to slow breathing. This pathway is the reason that heroin and fentanyl overdoses kill people. And kratom doesn’t seem to set it off.

“We have been searching for this kind of mechanism for a very long time,” said Oliver Grundmann, an associate professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Florida College of Pharmacy, who has published one of the few reviews of the pharmacology of kratom.

Kratom offers a tantalizing opportunity for developing safer painkiller medications, he said. “If we can study this further, if we can actually move forward and not be limited by the DEA, then I think we might actually have a chance at providing everyone with a safer drug.”

On Feb. 8, two days after the FDA released its warnings about kratom-linked deaths, Grundmann and eight other scientists submitted a letter to the DEA’s acting administrator, Robert W. Patterson, and the White House’s opioid czar, Kellyanne Conway, arguing that making kratom illegal could mean driving some people back to heroin or fentanyl, potentially increasing the number of deadly overdoses.

"Kratom is a tree in the coffee family, not the opium family," the letter read. "It is our collective judgment that placing kratom into Schedule I will potentially increase the number of deaths of Americans caused by opioids."

But the FDA is making the opposite argument, based partly on a computer model developed by the agency that simulates how a drug will interact with different brain receptors. According to this model, kratom is an opioid — and comes with all of an opioid’s potential harms.

“The evidence that the agency has shows us that kratom is an opioid,” the FDA spokesperson said. “And it’s not clear to us if kratom is fueling the opioid epidemic or causing an epidemic of its own.”

Yoon S. Byun

Ask pretty much any public health expert what to do about drug epidemics, and they’ll all say the same thing: “harm reduction.”

The term generally refers to social policies (like needle exchanges) and medical options (like methadone clinics) that aim not to eliminate all drug use, but instead to make death or disease less likely. Years of scientific research have shown that methadone and other “medication-assisted treatments” like Suboxone keep people off of more dangerous opioids. Yet only 1 in 10 people who need these treatments actually get them, despite the endorsement of conservatives like Conway, Chris Christie, and Newt Gingrich.

Still, these medications are opioids and can become addictive themselves. Methadone has such a high potential for abuse that it can only be dispensed to patients who show up to federally regulated clinics every day. And even under those restricted circumstances, it causes some harm. In 2016, at least 3,314 deaths were attributed to methadone overdose (although that number has been declining).

Suboxone — which includes the opioid buprenorphine — was approved in 2002 because it has a lower abuse potential than methadone, meaning that patients can get it prescribed and take it at home. By 2013, it had surpassed Viagra and Adderall in sales, bringing in $1.55 billion a year in the US alone. But because it can also cause a mild euphoria reminiscent of a high, it’s sometimes diverted and sold on the street, leading some critics to argue that Suboxone has become “both medication and dope.” (Still others point out that’s still harm reduction, because street Suboxone doesn’t kill people the way that heroin or fentanyl might.)

“Addiction to kratom is real — it is a problem, and it’s not being discussed.”

In the past few years, some addiction specialists have started to notice the same thing happening with kratom. “Addiction to kratom is real — it is a problem, and it’s not being discussed,” said David Galbis-Reig, an addiction medicine specialist at the Ascension Wisconsin All Saints Hospital. He’s treated two patients so far with some of the symptoms of opioid withdrawal from kratom, exhibiting addictive behaviors like cravings, issues with relationships, and inability to stop or cut back their kratom use. (One of his patients, he said, was spending $45,000 a year on kratom — a figure that kratom advocates say is impossible, given its typical cost of less than $100 per kilogram.)

“I believe it probably is beneficial for some individuals, but we just don’t know who those individuals are, and we can’t be touting this as a panacea for addiction,” he said.

Olivera Bogunovic, a medical director in the Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, says she’s seen roughly five patients who required detox from kratom. In all of those cases, the withdrawal symptoms looked very similar to those of heroin, she said.

“We’re trying to battle an opioid crisis, we’re trying to use evidence-based treatment, so it does cause some concern that people are trying to do it on their own, not medically supervised,” Bogunovic said.

Kratom addiction is a contentious topic in the Facebook groups, where it’s not unusual for people who post about withdrawal, cravings, or highs to be swiftly criticized for exaggerating or making it up. The schism has led to a Reddit group, /r/quittingkratom, where more than 4,800 members post dozens of threads a day about their addiction to the plant.

“I think people are worried about acknowledging this part of it because it could hurt kratom’s reputation,” said Steve (whose last name has been withheld to protect his privacy).

Steve had been struggling with alcoholism for decades before jumping off of an 80-foot bridge in 2012. After the suicide attempt, he went to an abstinence-based rehab facility, where he first heard of kratom from a fellow patient. When he got out of rehab and got a high-pressure sales job, he tried the plant, and it worked. “I could sense myself wanting a drink, wanting something,” Steve said. “Kratom filled that hole.”

At first he took it twice a day, a 3-gram dose each time, and it gave him a “buzz of energy and euphoria.”

For nine months, his life felt more stable than it ever had before. But as work stresses increased, so did his kratom usage. At his peak, he was taking it 10 times a day, using about 30 grams total, and spending $400 to $700 a month on his habit.

Despite taking so much, Steve said, he felt complete cognitive clarity and was highly functioning at his job. “At the end of the day I was going to bed and wasn’t doing anything horrible,” Steve said, in contrast to his nights on alcohol and benzos. “But I was abusing the crap out of it. It wasn’t making me feel any better, and I couldn’t stop.”

And when he tried to quit cold turkey, he experienced withdrawal symptoms — he felt weak, unmotivated, and extremely anxious. It took him five months to taper down to his previous dose of 3 grams in the morning and afternoon. He’s still working to quit taking kratom altogether.

“If anyone says it’s not addictive, that’s bullshit,” Steve said.

Ron Figaratto and Gullikson at Greener Pastures.
Yoon S. Byun for BuzzFeed News

Ron Figaratto and Gullikson at Greener Pastures.

Tucked in the woods about 15 minutes from True’s home, an old white mansion called Greener Pastures is the country’s first and only kratom-assisted rehab.

Nine clients have stayed there since its opening in March. The treatment lasts for at least 30 days, and the protocol recommends they begin with a small dose of kratom and ramp up, depending on the severity of their withdrawal symptoms. If they want to keep using kratom beyond that first month, that’s fine. And they’re also encouraged to smoke weed if it helps.

“If someone’s going to use kratom for the rest of their life, that is a beautiful harm reduction.”

“This is recovery without judgment,” said Roxanne Gullikson, who opened Greener Pastures with her husband, occupational therapist Ron Figaratto, after running a “cannabis caregiver” office in Portland. “If someone’s going to use kratom for the rest of their life, that is a beautiful harm reduction,” Gullikson said.

The house is scattered with New Agey decorations — Tibetan prayer flags, Om signs, and inspirational quotes like “Find Joy in the Journey.” Mason jars full of kratom, labeled for each strain, are always available on the kitchen counter, with a legal pad acting as a ledger for clients to fill out how much they take and when. In the basement, there’s a “zen den” where people can vape weed, next to a small room where they grow cannabis.

On a clear afternoon in May there were two residents: a 32-year-old woman a few weeks into weaning herself off methadone, who had to stop taking kratom because of its effects on her stomach; and a man in his mid-twenties, with dark circles under his eyes and his hood pulled up, shuddering in the very early stages of heroin withdrawal. The next day, in a moment of complete desperation, he tried to leave the house to go get a dose of Suboxone. (He didn’t succeed, and would ultimately finish his detox with kratom at Greener Pastures.)

Yoon S. Byun for BuzzFeed News

Greener Pastures’ price tag — $7,500 for a month — has drawn some ire from locals. And the fee will rise, Gullikson said, once the facility is at full capacity, when they hope to offer a suite of alternative care — Reiki, acupuncture, daily yoga — to up to eight residents at a time. The cost then, she said, would be closer to $15,000, in line with other inpatient rehabilitation services across the country.

Some addiction specialists raise their eyebrows at these alternative therapies, including kratom, because they aren’t backed by any scientific research. For them, Greener Pastures is yet another rehab selling questionable remedies.

“There are lots of treatment facilities that will profit off of people’s desperation,” said Galbis-Reig of Ascension Wisconsin. “Neither marijuana nor kratom have any proven benefit in addiction.”

But Greener Pastures is trying to change that. It’s partnering with researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York and the University of British Columbia to launch an observational study that will rigorously catalog the short-term and long-term impacts of kratom use.

“Anecdotal evidence is very weak,” said Marc Swogger, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center, one of the researchers leading the study. “And they’ve been used in both directions: case studies of people with very positive experiences of kratom, and then case studies of people getting sick after taking kratom. Neither of them are particularly compelling, study by study.”

True and her stepson, Jeff Wolstenhulme.
Yoon S. Byun

True and her stepson, Jeff Wolstenhulme.

Greener Pastures has become not only a treatment facility, but a gathering place for kratom advocates across the state, including the Taunton Bay team, and True and her stepson.

Jeff Wolstenhulme first used kratom two years ago, trying to kick his addiction to Suboxone and fentanyl. He’d been staying with his dad and True, after being “one of those homeless kids panhandling in downtown Portland — dopesick sitting on a corner holding a sign.” He says he’s overdosed 16 times.

After detoxing with kratom for four days, Wolstenhulme went to a recovery home in New Hampshire that didn’t allow it. The center’s abstinence approach didn’t work for him, and a couple of months later he overdosed on what was probably fentanyl, though as he pointed out, “you never know.”

The reason he relapsed, he said, was because he believed abstinence should be his goal. So when he took any substance — whether Suboxone, weed, or kratom — he felt like a failure, and the guilt would drive him back toward harmful drugs.

Four months ago, after a suicide attempt, he tried kratom again, and it worked. This time, with his dad and stepmom as examples, he realized that his recovery didn’t require total abstinence. “A lot of people don’t know that,” he said. “I didn’t know that.”

Yoon S. Byun for BuzzFeed News

For the last 115 days, he’s carried a big plastic water bottle filled with kratom and grapefruit juice in his backpack. He drinks it throughout the day, and smokes weed, too. He has a job and is volunteering at Greener Pastures as a recovery coach.

True has been volunteering at Greener Pastures too, and in late March, she got her nursing license back. She’s unsure about returning to nursing, though, because the job would require regular drug tests, and she’s worried about testing positive for kratom. “I will choose using botanicals over my nursing license — no doubt,” she said.

A big part of True’s recovery is focusing on the present: making it through today, living without fear today, not needing to get high today. So it’s tough for her to think ahead to the very real possibility of a kratom ban.

When asked what she would do, her first response was that she’d dive right back into heroin.

But after a moment, she reconsidered. “Actually, I’m sure I would always find [kratom] one way or another — I never had a problem finding anything else I wanted,” she said. “But I don’t want to have to live like that anymore.” ●

CORRECTION

Suboxone is a prescription drug to treat addiction that contains one opioid, buprenorphine, as well as an opioid blocker, naltrexone. A previous version of this story stated that Suboxone contains two opioids.

CORRECTION

White strains of kratom are reportedly energizing, and red strains calming. A previous version of this story confused the two.