SEMINOLE — In a rare move, City Council members reversed themselves on a unanimous vote to ban the sale of kava and kratom within city limits, agreeing — once again unanimously — not to bring the ordinance to a second reading.
The "consensus vote" to back off of the ordinance came at a recent workshop, two weeks after the vote to ban the substances and immediately following a regularly scheduled council meeting where several impassioned citizens turned out to laud the benefits of kava and kratom.
One woman praised kava bars for their commitment to the community; another said her daughter uses kratom to relieve chronic fatigue and depression. A local lawyer protested the inclusion of other substances in the ordinance, such as bath salts, insisting that kava and kratom "are very different things."
Council member Roger Edelman attributed the about-face to the fact that his colleagues "did some homework" on the substances after first reading.
"My view changed substantially," Edelman said. "I didn't find any doctors who said they thought either kava or kratom should be banned."
Council member Jim Quinn said an influx of emails from kava and kratom proponents from as far away as Hawaii caused him to change his mind, adding "it doesn't make any sense to eliminate these items if they're helping people."
Vice mayor Chris Burke said the people who spoke at the March 27 council meeting convinced him to vote in favor of abandoning the ordinance. Nevertheless, he remains opposed to the sale of kava and kratom, the latter of which he referred to as "a gateway drug."
"I had reason to trust the people who were talking, but I still don't think those substances should be sold," Burke said. "We should not encourage citizens to use them until the FDA says they're safe."
While neither kava nor kratom have been clinically tested or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, they've been consumed for centuries by the cultures that discovered them — and they're rapidly gaining popularity in the Tampa Bay area.
Both are offered in dozens of bars, tobacco and electronic-cigarette shops and lounges throughout Pinellas County, including several locations in Seminole.
Kava, which originated in the Pacific Islands and comes from a root in the pepper family, is ground to a powder that is mixed with water and served as a drink. Users say it helps them relax.
The more controversial kratom comes from Asia. Dried and served in water like a tea, it's hailed as a pain remedy safer than traditional opioids such as oxycodone, as well as an effective addiction withdrawal aid.
Not everyone agrees.
The Drug Enforcement Administration is considering placing kratom in the same category of illegal drugs as heroin. The Food and Drug Administration recently claimed a new computer model it developed shows kratom contains opioid compounds that can cause seizures and depressed breathing.
Sarasota County imposed a ban on all kratom products in 2014, targeting vendors and imposing penalties on buyers. The following year, Florida legislators filed House and Senate bills to add kratom to the state's list of controlled substances and to make possession, sale, manufacture and delivery of kratom a first-degree misdemeanor.
Both bills died in committee.
Seminole Mayor Leslie Waters referenced local and national concerns at the City Council's annual workshop in January, suggesting that council members consider enacting an ordinance to ban "fringe" substances like kava and kratom within city limits.
After establishing that such an ordinance was within their legal purview, council members directed city attorney Jay Daigneault to draft the document. Daigneault warned them at the time that there could be a backlash.
He also suggested adding other substances to the ordinance, which led to the inclusion of synthetic cannabinoid, herbal incense and contraband bath salts.
At least for now, sale of all those substances will remain legal in Seminole, with no plans to revisit the issue – unless council members have another change of heart.