MIAMI (CBSMiami) — A drug known as kratom produces a high like cocaine, can be as addictive as heroin, and--believe it or not--is completely legal.
It's an herbal remedy found in Kava bars and head shops in South Florida and throughout the country, but now authorities say kratom, which comes from a tree in southeast Asia, may not be completely safe.
"This will get you where you need to be and make you feel good," said one proponent. "It can give you a happy, euphoric feeling," said another. "I feel like I have a little buzz," said a third.
"It's a branch of the coffee family and years and years ago, the villagers would manipulate the leaves and it gave off an effect that relaxed people," said clinical care coordinator John Corbett, a drug and alcohol counselor.
Kratom, sought after for its euphoric and more intense effects, is considered by some as one of the most dangerous drugs currently for sale in the United States.
"Doctors are Googling, they're actually Googling what is this, where is this coming from," said Corbett. "People are ending up in emergency rooms, hospitals, rehab."
Kratom is ground into powder, stuffed in capsules and even sold in liquid form. It is so highly addictive Corbett likens it to opium and heroin.
"It was a warm, euphoric feeling, " said 23-year-old former kratom user Carrie, "I didn't feel irritable, I wasn't concerned with day to day anxieties."
But soon, Carrie said, her casual kratom use turned to full-blown addiction. She was taking kratom three times a day, spending $1,000 a month on it.
"I was scrounging for change, for food ," Carrie said, " Some days I would go without eating because I would rather have money for the drug."
A recovering prescription drug addict, Carrie said she went through rehab a second time, for kratom, with the process proving to be equally grueling.
According to Peter Gannon, a psychiatric nurse practitioner who helped treat Carrie, detoxing from kratom is in fact similar to kicking heroin.
"You'll go through an opiate type of withdrawal, where you'll have nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, chills, and sweats," Gannon said, "You'll just feel like you want to die."
Kratom is popping up for sale everywhere, from smoke shops and convenient stores to the Internet.
So why is it legal in the U.S. when Australia, Malaysia, and Thailand have all banned its use? The Drug Enforcement Agency recently placed kratom on its list of "Drugs and Chemicals of Concern," a watch list of substances that government chemists are studying.
Since kratom is still legal, that means growers like Wesley Todd are free to sell kratom without repercussions.
Todd said he started producing and selling the herb after a debilitating motorcycle accident. Severe pain led Todd to doctor after doctor, and he was soon addicted to prescription medication. Taking Kratom, Todd said, allowed him to break that habit, and resume a normal life, adding that the herb is safe to use, and not addictive.
"No one has ever overdosed on it, " Todd said, "There is just no way, it's not possible. The claims they are making are not possible."
Still, those who offer treatment for Kratom addiction say it can be dangerous, and they advise people who want to try it to think twice before they do.
A state lawmaker in Massachusetts has filed a bill to outlaw kratom.
"You could get into an automobile high on kratom, drive down the road and crash and kill someone," said Vinny deMacedo.
Although there have been no reported fatalities from kratom, the known risks and dangers of overdoses include delusions, tremors, coordination problems, and hallucinations.
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