After the recent crackdown on prescription and synthetic drugs across the state, authorities are now focusing on controlling an herb currently legal in Florida and believed to elicit the same effects as some narcotics.
Made from the leaves of trees that grow in southeast Asia, kratom is on the radar of many agencies: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration began detaining imported kratom last year, and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services ordered grocery and convenience stores to stop selling the products. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration also added it to its list of drugs of concern.
In Florida, Sarasota is the only county that has outlawed the herb.
The rest of the state might be next: State Rep. Kristin Jacobs of Coconut Creek filed a bill in January that would make the supplement a controlled substance.
"This is Florida's next crisis," Jacobs said. "We must at some point figure out how to become proactive rather than reactive to these kinds of efforts."
But many kratom users credit the herb for curbing their addictions to pain medication.
"I am concerned," said Tammy Hartman of North Fort Myers. "I don't want to go back to the situation and the mental place that I was at."
In Tampa Bay, kratom is being sold in smoke shops, including in Dunedin, Safety Harbor and St. Pete Beach, said Pinellas sheriff's Capt. Mark Baughman, who oversees the narcotics division.
"I'm hoping something will be done," Baughman said. "I think that because it's still relatively new on the market that we haven't seen all the side effects."
Kratom, also available online, comes in pills, crushed leaves and powder that can be added to drinks. One bottle of capsules containing two doses costs about $20.
Kratom has been used in southeast Asia for decades, according to the DEA. At low doses, it functions as a stimulant that triggers alertness and energy. At high doses, kratom can cause sedative effects similar to opiates.
Side effects might include nausea, itching and loss of appetite, the DEA reports, although some cases of psychosis have been documented, including hallucinations and confusion.
Some research suggests kratom can have dangerous interactions if taken with prescription drugs. Jacobs said investigators recently told her about a Santa Rosa County man found dead after taking kratom.
According to the DEA, the supplement has no "legitimate medical use."
Chris Giblin, owner of smoke shops in Holiday and Clearwater, said most of his kratom customers use it to alleviate pain. Since Giblin began selling it more than two years ago, kratom has become one of the most popular products at his stores.
James Morrissette, a Cape Coral distributor, said many kratom users use it to treat fibromyalgia, anxiety and insomnia.
"It's growing," Morrissette said of kratom's popularity. "There's a tremendous amount of interest and it's solving problems with many people's lives."
Morrissette created the Facebook group, "The American Kratom Society," which has more than 1,400 members. Hartman is among them. She took prescription drugs for 10 years to cope with back pain related to a motorcycle crash.
"I had become addicted to it," she said. "I had taken them for so long they weren't working well."
A few years ago, she started taking kratom daily. Her pain is gone and she doesn't feel the grogginess triggered by pills, she said. If kratom is banned in Florida, Hartman, 42, said she will consider moving to another state.
"If this does pass," she said, "it can change my life all over again."
Contact Laura C. Morel at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)445-4157. Follow @lauracmorel.