After several days in limbo, law enforcement and drug rehabilitation officials are adjusting to Alabama’s prohibition of kratom and its derivatives, which have grown in popularity due to their opiate-like effects and former legal status.

Kratom is a plant indigenous to Thailand, and while it’s not an opiate itself, it has been shown to produce similar effects by binding to opioid receptors in the human body.

Liquid Kratom products, like the ones pictured here, have become a popular item in Alabama's gas stations.

Liquid Kratom products, like the ones pictured here, have become a popular item in Alabama’s gas stations.

Over the last year or so convenience stores, health shops and other retailers throughout Alabama have been legally selling powders, pills and drinks containing kratom or its alkaloid derivatives mitragynine and hydroxymitragynine.

However, Senate Bill 226 sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) passed the Legislature in the final minutes of 2016’s regular session last week, and in doing so, added mitragynine and hydroxymitragynine to the state’s lists of controlled substances.

While the change technically took effect the moment the bill was signed by Gov. Robert Bentley
on Tuesday, law enforcement officials in Mobile are trying to give store owners and thousands of kratom users “a reasonable amount of time” to adjust to the change.

“What was being sold in our convenience stores and in local businesses yesterday is now against the law today,” Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich said at a May 11 press conference. “The community needs to understand these are now controlled substances, and they need to be removed from the shelves of any business that is selling them.”

From left, Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran and District Attorney Ashley Rich hold a press conference on Alabama's Kratom law with Virginia Guy of the Drug Education Council.

From left, Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran and District Attorney Ashley Rich hold a press conference on Alabama’s Kratom law with Virginia Guy of the Drug Education Council.

Rich was joined by Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran, who said his deputies, as well as Mobile Police officers, would be checking stores in their respective jurisdictions to begin enforcing the new law immediately.

Cochran said there would be “a reasonable amount of time” for store owners to remove kratom products from their shelves and dispose of them without facing charges, but clarified it would only be “two to three days” at most. When asked, Cochran said business owners should be aware of changes in the legal status of products they sell through the various trade organizations they belong to.

“The possession of this is illegal now, and we don’t want to see what happened with spice, where there was thousands of bags that wound up in backrooms or disappeared in warehouses being sold for the next two or three years,” Cochran said. “They really need to free themselves of any criminal liability. If we go out to see something there, come back the next day and it’s not gone and they’ve restocked the shelves, somebody’s going to jail.”

Kratom’s place on the state’s list of controlled substances puts it in the same legal category as other Schedule 1 narcotics like cocaine and methamphetamine. As of May 10, the possession, distribution and manufacturing of products that contain kratom or its derivatives are considered a felony in the state of Alabama.

All “very serious crimes,” Rich said even the act of putting kratom leaves into a pouch for distribution could result in a manufacturing charge, which carries a potential of 10 to 99 years in prison.

This map shows a state-by-state breakdown of Kratom's legal status in the U.S. (speciosa.org)

This map shows a state-by-state breakdown of Kratom’s legal status in the U.S. (speciosa.org)

With the passage of the new law, Alabama becomes the fifth state to make the plant illegal following Indiana, Vermont, Tennessee and Arkansas. However, similar bills have failed in numerous other states, including one in Kentucky just last week.

Though Rich compared kratom’s shifting legal status to the situation that surrounded spice (marijuana analog) when it was outlawed, she said the effects are not similar. According to Rich, at low doses kratom causes increased alertness and physical energy, while higher doses can produce sedative effects similar to morphine and other prescribed painkillers.

She added that because kratom “affects the brain at the opioid receptors,” it causes “documented opioid effects and major addiction issues.”

According to Virginia Guy, Executive Director of the Drug Education Council, kratom has been around a long time, but it became widely used when drinks containing the herb began popping at corner gas stations throughout Mobile County and were being packaged similarly to 5-Hour Energy shots.

Guy told Lagniappe that there have been many cases of people in the Mobile area becoming addicted to kratom drinks, including some who were taking as many as 18 each day at an average cost of $6.99 per bottle. Rich added that it was substance abuse counselors in other areas that initially brought the “horrible addiction problems” associated with kratom to the attention of state legislators.

“Our agency’s main goal is to protect children in our community,” Guy said. “So, we’ve been talking for a little while about the dangers of children using these products — particularly with kratom.”

While some kratom products in gas stations are labeled for persons 18 or older, the requirement wasn’t enforceable as no laws existed to govern its sale. There were failed attempts at “a compromise bill” before Orr’s bill passed the legislature that would have regulated the sale of kratom to those over the age of 21 instead of criminalizing its possession altogether.

One organization that’s lobbied against kratom’s prohibition in many states is the American Kratom Association founded by Susan Ash. This week, Ash said she questioned the way SB 226 was pushed through in last minute of Alabama’s legislative session — passing at 11:59 p.m. during a session scheduled to end at midnight.

“We were told going in that this was a done deal. Every trick in the Alabama legislature’s book was played on the forces that were trying for a compromise bill, but none were given time or discussion,” Ash said. “So now, the state of Alabama will have reason to put more of their hard working voters in prison, husbands will lose their active wives, children will lose the companionship and guidance of their mothers and fathers as more formerly sober citizens are forced by pain to return to opioid drugs.”

Rich on the other hand, said Kratom was dangerous both in its addictiveness and in the deception its former legal status caused. She said many people, including teenagers, saw it being “sold legally and lawfully in their stores” and assumed it wasn’t dangerous.

“We hear that from so many young people, but there are very dangerous addictive substances,” she added. “People were going in the store to buy a coke or a muffin, and there it was.”