For four years, Mary Tabar said, her 19-year-old daughter Brette was a regular at three Pinellas County bars serving kratom tea. Then, in March, Brette Tabar "suffered psychotic episodes and hallucinations so severe that she was confined pursuant" to the Baker Act, the suit says.
Now, Mary Tabar has filed a lawsuit in Pinellas County as her daughter's guardian, alleging Brette Taber suffered frontal lobe damage to her brain after drinking the Southeast Asian herbal remedy. She is suing Bula on the Beach, Bula Kafe and Mad Hatter's Ethnobotanical Tea Bar for negligence.
"Our complaint lays out our allegations pretty clearly. The complaint stems from the sale of this dangerous product, kratom," said Chase Carpenter, Tabar's lawyer. "It is a dangerous product that has certainly caused injury to people, and it has certainly caused injury to our client."
Originating from Southeast Asia, kratom tea leaves have been used as a natural medicine for centuries. The unregulated leaves are commonly dried and crushed, taken in pill form or brewed into teas. Kratom has become popular in tea bars due to its opioid-like effects on consumers that can act as a stimulant or a mild euphoric depending on the dose. It's commonly used to treat anxiety and pain.
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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency have struggled for years in its attempts to regulate the plant. Proponents such as the American Kratom Agency argue the plant is generally harmless, that it's dangerous side-effects are only seen when adulterated and mixed with other drugs. The FDA, however, has linked kratom to 44 deaths in the U.S. over a nine-year period.
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Carpenter said a physician treating Brette Tabar made the connection between the brain damage and kratom, though he didn't elaborate on how or comment on her current condition, citing pending litigation. In the complaint, Carpenter said the bars failed to warn Tabar of dangerous side-effects, making them liable for "bodily injury and resulting pain and suffering, aggravation of a pre-existing condition, mental anguish, loss of capacity for the enjoyment of life, past and future medical and nursing care expenses and treatment" and other damages. Carpenter wouldn't say what, if any, pre-existing conditions she had or if she was on any medication at the time of her episodes.
At least one owner in the suit isn't buying it.
Levi Love, owner of Mad Hatter's, said this is the first time he's ever heard of someone suing a tea bar for brain damage. He said the Tampa Bay area's growing tea scene is close-knit. He also owns a second Mad Hatter's in Denver. Of the speculated side-effects from kratom use, he said he's never heard of anything like those described in the lawsuit. Additionally, he said, his bartenders always explain the tea to customers and help guide their experience, even warning some not to try the drink if they're on medication.
"I think it's completely unfounded. Being around people who drink kratom and use it regularly, I've never seen these symptoms or heard of them," Love said "Never a psychotic episode and certainly not hallucinating or brain damage."
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Love said he's not even convinced Tabar was as frequent a user as her family claims. Carpenter said he would characterize her as a regular customer, but Love claims not to know her. It's hard to imagine a customer coming into multiple bars in the area over the course of four years and not being known within the community, he said. Based on information provided by her lawyers, Love said Brette Tabar would have been 15 when she became a regular at the bars. That's impossible, he said, as his bars have a strict 18-and-over policy.
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As attempts to federally regulate kratom move forward, including attempts by the DEA to classify it among the ranks of LSD and heroine as a Schedule I narcotic, Love worries this suit might be damning to an industry he said keeps people away from illicit drugs and alcohol.
Love said he's watched people attempt to turn away from drugs and alcohol, only to return once loneliness kicks in and they realize "their friends were just drinking buddies." Bars like his and others serving ethnobotanical teas such as like kava and kratom offer people a place to gather socially outside of the traditional bar scenes.
Most people, Love said, are responsible users of the product. Just as alcohol consumption comes with dangers of overuse, so do most things, he said. Kratom is no exception.
"That would be terrible for all of the people that are using it responsibly," he said. "It's gonna take away our freedom to do what we want with our bodies. If you can OD on water, you can OD on anything. Whatever you're gonna do, just do it responsibility."
Daniel Figueroa IV can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @danuscripts