ALBANY, GA (WALB) - A substance made from a Southeast Asian tree is one of the latest tools some hope will be able to cushion the deadly blow of the U.S. heroin epidemic.
Kratom is banned in some states, but legal and easily purchased in South Georgia.
Those who take Kratom said, at low doses, the plant feels like a stimulant, giving people energy and making some more sociable. They add that higher doses, though, act like opiates with sedative and euphoric effects.
Kratom is sold at Summerlin Vitamins in Albany. It may just look a store to many, but for Diane Murray, it is a place that changed her life.
The user experience
"I was taking some pain medicine, prescribed and it wasn't helping," Murray said.
Unbearable pain from several medical conditions and back surgery kept her bedridden.
For Murray, it was a losing battle.
"You're going to build up a resistance to that," Murray said. "I've seen people that that's happened to and I didn't want to be a statistic."
So, in a final effort, to lessen her pain and avoid addiction, she made a trip to the store to try Kratom.
"I was skeptical at first, but then the pain got so bad, and I didn't want to go with any stronger pain medicine," Murray said.
She says the ground up Southeast Asian plant made a difference in minutes.
"She looked at me and said its working, it's working," Summerlin Vitamins employee Cathy Summerlin said.
Store owners said more and more people are having that emotional reaction.
"Each little spoonful right there," employee Michael Summerlin said while displaying the powder. "You'll be good for three to four hours."
That's part of the reason Summerlin employees said it's their top selling item.
"Basically, whenever you've got a good product, it sells itself," Michael Summerlin said.
Kratom navigates the legal system
But the substance in their Albany store is illegal or partially banned in more than five states and a handful of cities.
While its accessible now, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency suggested to label it as a dangerous drug last August, but some argue, its helping fight a more deadly epidemic spreading across the country.
"Right now, in America, there is a huge opioid problem," Michael Summerlin said. "Right at 100 people a day are overdosing. People are dropping like flies because of this stuff."
Proponents of Kratom said it can help heroin or other opioid addicts wean themselves off of dangerous drugs or give a boost to those who need a little energy, mood enhancement or pain relief.
"The feeling is kind of similar minus all of the bad stuff," Michael Summerlin said. "All the real bad withdrawals and the chance that you're going to die."
The DEA and legislators in the state of Georgia have both tried to outlaw it, but failed.
DEA documents state the consumption of Kratom can lead to addiction, nausea and other issues. They add that there has yet to be a legitimate medical use of the substance found in the U.S.
But those who take it don't completely see it that way.
"I have to laugh at some of the negative stuff like people saying it's like a drug, you get high, no you don't," Murray said. "The more you take the more you want, no."
In fact, for Murray, it's an experience she said gave her life back to her.
"I'm doing more. I'm going to family functions," Murray said. "I was able to attend a family reunion in Tampa, Florida recently. I could not have done that a year ago, could not have made the trip."
She said those moments make life worth living, after a very dark time.
"It's been huge," Murray said. "Huge. I mean four walls after a while get awful closed in."
So, for now, while Kratom navigates legal systems across the country, those in Georgia are left to lawfully weigh the consequences on their own.
Kratom is illegal just across the border in both Alabama and Tennessee.
Critics of the substance speak out
While we were finishing up our special report on Kratom, we got a call from a Florida woman who had heard about the story. Linda Mautner said she believes her son became addicted to Kratom and committed suicide in 2014.
She attributes his death to the supplement.
After that, she started the Ian Mautner Foundation to help those with Substance Use Disorder.
She said critics of her stance on Kratom, and its role in her son's death, have cited other issues in his life as the reasons he ended it.
Mautner said she truly believes his addiction to Kratom is the reason he is dead.
"Your addiction could turn into one like my sons, which was a $125 a day habit," Mautner said. "He stole some checks from his grandmother and that day she had to confront him about that. Within minutes of that confronting episode, he drove to the top of the overpass. He told her when he left the house, 'I can't live like this anymore', and he dove."
Mautner now advocates making the substance illegal in different states.
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