CLEARWATER — It’s not normally difficult to get a parking spot outside a city council meeting.
But last week, nary a spot outside the Clearwater Main Library could be found. Dozens of residents from Clearwater and elsewhere showed up, packing the chambers inside.
The topic on nearly everyone’s mind was a potential city ban on kratom, an herbal supplement. During public comment, one devotee after another strode to the speaker’s dais to explain what they stood to lose: pain management, cancer relief, a return to a normal family life. A man’s voice shook as he urged the council not to ban it.
One problem: Banning kratom was not on the council’s agenda.
“I think there was a misunderstanding. They all came to the meeting the other night thinking that we were going to be discussing a ban,” Mayor George Cretekos said. “I don’t know that we’re thinking about it at all.”
So how did such a misunderstanding come about?
It’s a tree related to the coffee plant that proponents hail as a miracle pain manager. Detractors say it can be deadly. The Food and Drug Administration has not approved kratom for consumption, but it’s sold legally to adults at dozens of tea and kava bars around the Tampa Bay area.
Ira Richards, a professor of toxicology at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health, said kratom has potential benefits, and also significant drawbacks. Taken in smaller doses, it energizes users. Up the dosage, and kratom can act as a sedative. If a user takes too much, it can cause breathing difficulty, or even seizures, Richards said.
The herb’s leaves are chewed directly or crushed into a powder that can be brewed into a tea or taken via capsules. Kratom acts on the brain’s opioid receptors, making it both a potential treatment for harrowing addictions and a threat to a young mind.
“The developing nervous system is more vulnerable to anything that has effects on the central nervous system,” Richards said.
Related story: Seminole council does full flip-flop on kratom sales
The supplement has proven deadly if abused. How deadly is a point of some contention. An article in Harvard Health Publishing noted that although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attributed 91 deaths to kratom between 2016 and 2017, “all but seven of these casualties had other drugs in their system at the time of death.”
In other words, much about kratom is unknown. That doesn’t stop people from having strong opinions about it.
In September, Clearwater officials heard testimonial from Lance Dyer, an Alabama activist who said his 14-year-old son died after using a synthetic drug. Dyer said he’s been traveling around the Gulf states to urge port cities to ban kratom. His campaign has been partially successful, he said: In Sarasota, for example, it’s illegal to possess kratom.
City staff said they’d research the drug.
The next month, the council heard from a Tampa parent whose adult son died from kratom intoxication. Two more parents, Brett and Mary Tabar of Bradenton, said kratom had permanently damaged the brain of their daughter, Brette. All three parents have sued the local businesses that allegedly sold the substance to their children.
Related story: Lawsuit says kratom tea caused teen’s brain damage
In an interview, Tabar said she took her story to Clearwater because she heard the city was looking into kratom. But even she doesn’t necessarily want a ban, she said. Tabar wants to see the drug studied and regulated. And she wants proprietors to warn customers about potential dangers — particularly to underage patrons like her daughter once was.
“I’m not against kratom at all,” Tabar said. “I’m against not knowing enough about it and us not targeting the right people for it.”
The local kratom community got wind of the cautionary tales, and last week, they mobilized. The day before the council meeting, the American Kratom Association, a lobbying group, sent an email blast to its listserv.
“Tomorrow, the Clearwater City Council will be meeting and we need folks to email the City Council members and attend to show your support for kratom,” the message read. “Make no mistake, a possible ban in Clearwater is real and, if passed, could lead to more bans around the state.”
The email wasn’t technically wrong. A ban is still possible, said Clearwater Police Chief Daniel Slaughter. Staff is looking at how other cities have regulated the drug, and they’ll present their findings before council in the coming weeks. The council could then decide to ban kratom.
But Cretekos doubts that will happen. Even if the city finds kratom is hurting its citizens, both the mayor and the police chief say a municipal ban probably wouldn’t work. Habitual users could simply drive to a neighboring city to get their fix.
Recent history has also proven that any potential ban would upset a large, loud community. When Seminole briefly considered banning kratom last year, a pro-kratom crowd packed itself into its municipal chambers. The city council quickly dropped the issue. And well into this week, testimonials were still pouring into Clearwater government inboxes from citizens who said kratom had helped them manage an array of diseases: opioid addiction, lupus, fibromyalgia.
At the council meeting, the mayor sat patiently as the testimonials from users and tea bar owners rolled in.
“This has turned my life around.”
“Kratom makes up approximately 60 percent of the income for these businesses."
“This is an amazing gift that we have.”
After about 20 minutes, Cretekos closed public comment. He explained that the council did not plan to discuss a kratom ban that evening, and asked all who came to talk about the supplement to stand so their support for kratom could be recorded by the city clerk.
The people, significantly younger on average than the usual Clearwater Council audience, stood. Their business done, they exited, leaving the chambers quiet and nearly empty.
Amid cheerful jostling of satisfied citizens, the city’s microphones caught Cretekos musing with Council Member Jay Polglaze.
“How did they get the information that it was on the agenda?” Polglaze asked.
“Somebody put out that it was on the agenda,” Cretekos responded.
“We didn’t put it out there,” Polglaze said.
“No,” the mayor said. “The Internet, Jay.”