CLARIFICATION: This article has been updated to clarify statements from Mai Kai to show they do not serve kratom to minors.
The Florida Legislature’s second recent endeavor in regulating kratom, an herbal extract that creates effects similar to stimulants and sedatives, won unanimous approval in the House of Representatives on Thursday and is on its way to the Senate.
HB 179, named the “Florida Kratom Consumer Protection Act,” will establish the minimum age to purchase kratom at 21 years old where there isn’t already a set legal age.
Supporters of the bill argue that kratom has the potential to be addictive, while opponents say it is a healthier alternative to most recreational drugs. With no federal legislation on the substance as more research emerges, states are left to draft their own regulations.
Kratom refers to both the powdered leaf extract as well as the Mitragyna Speciosa tree from Southeast Asia, usually consumed in a tea or dietary supplement.
Mac Haddow, a public policy expert for the American Kratom Association, said kratom is described as a food rather than a controlled substance, which is why the DEA was unsuccessful in labeling it a Schedule 1 drug in 2016. However, the FDA labeled it an “adulterating ingredient” in 2015, allowing it to seize tons of dietary supplements that contained the substance.
“The FDA is all out of their lane on this issue, because they have this inherent bias against all dietary supplements and botanical supplements,” he said.
The AKA is an advocacy group that works with various state governments to lobby for kratom regulation. Although the organization advocates for the minimum drinking age to be 18, Haddow said he respects the bill’s decision to establish it at 21.
He said the kratom market is expanding in the U.S. so the products should be regulated to promote its medicinal properties.
“You have a product that helps people with managing pain, and also for alertness and increasing focus in low doses,” he said. “Kratom that’s properly manufactured, labeled properly and restricted to minors is a safe product.”
David Chambers, 40, consumed kratom to help him stop drinking alcohol. However, he found that the substance gradually turned into a habit.
“I went to the truck to grab a tool and found myself with [kratom] powder in one hand and a water bottle in the other, completely unintentionally” he said.
About six months into drinking kratom, his therapist urged him into rehab to quit the substance, he said.
He said he supports the bill because younger people are more prone to forming addictions with substances.
“You can increase the likelihood of somebody becoming an addict by exposing them early enough in life,” he said.
Daniel Perea has served kratom behind the bar of Mai Kai for nearly four years. He said the kratom community in Gainesville has grown throughout his time, where more people come regularly to hang out or do work on their laptops.
“It’s like a coffee shop kind of vibe,” he said.
The kratom bar does not serve drinks to minors, and he discourages them from consuming kratom. However, the new bill would likely increase ID checks and turn away more customers.
“We don’t want to turn anyone away, because we think it’s a good place for the Gainesville community to come get to know each other, swap ideas, create collaborations,” he said.
He said he’s been sober for six years and enjoys kratom for its mild effects. He compared kratom to coffee where it’s possible to build bad habits, but it doesn’t change one’s personality like alcohol abuse does, he said.
“It doesn’t affect your balance. It doesn’t poison the organs in your body. It’s not nearly as damaging as some of the other stuff that is FDA approved.”
Perea handed a cup of Mai Tai, a single shot kratom beverage, to Ruben Gonzales-Vera, a 21-year-old UF student.
Vera took a sip and sat down at the wooden booth to type away on his laptop. He said he regularly comes to the kratom bar to study and hang out with friends.
“I have a problem where I tend to drink a lot of coffee,” he said. “So it’s a bit healthy for me to actually consume kava and kratom, because it has very little addictive effects, and it’s not gonna mess with my heart.”
He said he first tried kratom at 18 years old in his hometown Sarasota, despite the county being the only in Florida to fully ban the substance. He said he traveled 20 minutes north to Manatee County to hang out at Manna Tea and Kava Bar.
“Given the fact that I was 18 and there was nothing else in my hometown to do, it was either do something that is not good for me or go to Manna Tea and just…go to the open mics and comedy nights and meet interesting people.”
He said the new bill would result in more fake ID use and encourage alcohol drinking, as drinking alcohol will get users more intoxicated than kratom if both are outlawed for people under 21.
“I’ve seen kratom spaces to be a great way for people 18 to 21 to actually find a spot to meet new people and talk with people who are very different than yourself.”