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Tuesday, Dec 6, 2022
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Regulators Kill A Hit Painkiller

What do you do when one of your hottest-selling products becomes contraband? It’s a question facing smoke shop owners across the Valley area since the Drug Enforcement Administration decided to place a temporary ban on a dietary supplement called kratom. On Aug. 31, the agency released a notice of intent to classify kratom as a Schedule I substance – the same as heroin and marijuana – beginning Sept. 30, calling it an “imminent danger to public health.” The decision has left store owners such as Mike Korlin, who runs Ark Smoke Shop in Granada Hills, just weeks to clear out inventory before he’s stuck with legally unsellable product. “I have until the 30th to sell the remainder. I’ve blasted it everywhere I can think of social media-wise,” Korlin said. “That’s all we can do … get rid of the rest and stay in the clear.” Kratom (pronounced “cray-tom”) is an energy-enhancing supplement sold over-the-counter in head shops, gas stations and health stores. Users say kratom is unique in that at low doses it is a stimulant but at higher doses it is a potent pain killer that can put the user in a stupor. Korlin has yet to hear a customer complain about kratom purchased from his shop. But he does understand the supplement’s propensity for abuse and addiction, and he wouldn’t be surprised if other retailers used it to their advantage. “There are business owners who sell kratom who have realized that, yes, kratom has a potential for abuse,” he explained. “When you get people coming in again and again, a business owner is likely to be excited and jack up prices.” ‘Best-selling product’ Korlin said finding a reliable distributor of kratom was difficult And he was wary of potential liability that comes with selling an unregulated narcotic. “Honestly, kratom was not something I was even familiar with before (distribution) companies started approaching me about it two years ago,” Korlin said. Initially, he carried a only small batch of the product on consignment. “I brought in a couple of kilos, I marketed it as many places as I could to advertise it, and to this day I still get people coming in saying, ‘The internet says you sell kratom,’” he said. The handful of repeat customers who purchase kratom from Ark Smoke Shop are comfortable with Korlin’s prices because they know they’ll be receiving a safe, quality product, he explained, though at $30 for 40 grams – about 80 capsules or 10 or so doses – some visitors have told him he charges “a bit much.” Many frequent buyers have turned to kratom to escape the grip of opiate dependence. “The majority of people who are seeking kratom are seeking it for good, logical reasons,” Korlin said. “Attempting to get away from pain meds has proven difficult for a lot of people, so this has been the alternative.” His observations are echoed by Michael Jones, who opened his Studio City smoke shop Blue Dream LA in 2012. Like Korlin, Jones had limited experience with kratom until about two years ago, when he was contacted by a media outlet that wanted to run a news story on the product. “As soon as the story hit, people started calling,” Jones said. “Two years later, it’s still our best-selling product.” All of the kratom at Blue Dream LA has been tested for purity, Jones said. It’s an extra expense, but the peace of mind justifies the cost. He also considers transparency part of his duty as a responsible retailer. “The more bad stuff that happens to people, the more people that get sick, the quicker kratom’s gonna become illegal,” Jones said. “We want to do our part to keep it going.” Some customers take kratom in place of painkillers, Jones said, though many simply use it as an alternative to coffee. Still others are taking it for much more serious reasons. “I’ve had people use it to get off heroin,” Jones said. “It’s a legit product.” Permanently illegal? Jones was not surprised by the government’s decision to ban kratom. What he didn’t expect was the speed with which the legislation was handed down. “We all knew the Feds were looking at it, but it wasn’t like there were steps that were taken to get to this,” Jones said. “It was just like, we’re going to ban kratom next month. Deal with it.” Korlin was also taken aback by the sudden move. “I expected that eventually this would happen, but thought I would at least have time to sell the kilos I have,” he said. Smoke shops are no stranger to government intervention. It’s one of the risks of doing business in an industry that caters to vices. Korlin sold “spice,” or synthetic marijuana, until it was banned by the DEA in 2011. “Back then, I wasn’t well-informed,” he said. “Manufacturers were mislabeling it as incense, but they knew people were getting high off it. They knew what they were doing.” In retrospect, he regrets carrying the product, but is now much more cautious about what he offers in his shop. That’s part of his frustration with the scheduling of kratom; Even retailers who have been diligent about researching their wares are penalized under the ban. “Spice was designed specifically to be distributed in a misleading manner,” Korlin said. “With kratom, it’s been much more straightforward.” Jones shares Korlin’s grievance. Paperwork attesting to his kratom’s purity is kept on hand to address concerns, and he is adamant about getting customers’ feedback on the product. “(I want people to know) that we are what we say we are and that we do what we’re supposed to do,” Jones said. “A lot of people say, ‘You never know what’s in it,’ but that’s what sets us apart.” The ban doesn’t just wipe out profits from kratom itself. The substance drives sales of many other items Jones carries, such as hookahs, glass pipes and even sneakers. “It impacts my business greatly…a lot of times when people come in here to buy kratom, they buy other products,” Jones explained, “so it’s also a way to get people into the store.” But the legal ban on kratom is not necessarily permanent. After Sept. 30, it will remain a Schedule I controlled substance for at least two years or up to three, according to the DEA’s notice of intent. Its fate as a commercial product or an illegal drug will be based on the government’s findings during that period. Korlin doubts the DEA will lift the ban on kratom after two years, or even evaluate it as a potentially useful medicine. He also expects some storefronts to continue selling kratom long after the Sept. 30 deadline, although at some risk. “There probably will be businesses that will retain it and continue to sell it, but we won’t be one of them,” Korlin said. He was one of thousands of Americans who signed a petition to keep kratom legal, he said, but isn’t expecting much to come of it. “I’ve lost faith in the system of law that we have here,” he said. Dr. Albert Garcia-Romeu, a faculty member in the Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, believes the ban will force some of those who had come to rely on kratom’s therapeutic properties to seek it on the black market. “People will be buying kratom illegally from unregulated sources, which runs the risk of leading them to adulterated and unsafe products,” Garcia-Romeu said. This could lead to a spike in adverse effects attributed to kratom, he explained, which would serve as evidence for the DEA to keep it classified as a banned substance. At Blue Dream LA, Jones is holding out hope that the government will give kratom another chance. “It’s helping a lot of people, and I think the fact that it’s being scheduled is wrong,” he said. “I’m just going to keep faith that in the end they might keep some regulations on it, but that they aren’t going take it away from us.”

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