What You Get at the Kava Bar
Kava bars are a common sight in South Florida — but the menu and side effects – may vary.
Just over three years ago, on a weeknight in January, around midnight or so, it was my stomach that started to hurt. Subtle at first, like the nervous butterflies one might feel on the first day of school or before a job interview. But as the minutes wore on, and my stomach pain rapidly went from mild to severe, I knew this night wasn’t going to end well. Unfortunately, my suspicions proved correct, and the next 20 minutes were an exhausting combination of vomiting, clammy sweats and confusion. What was it, I had asked myself, that made me so sick?
As it so happened, about five hours prior to that stomach churning episode, my husband and I decided to visit a new cafe located at a nearby shopping plaza. It stuck out, in full view, amongst a home improvement store, a coffee shop, a barber, a tailor, and the empty storefronts that come and go. Outside the cafe, colorful signs, palm plants, and tables and chairs adorned the sidewalk, adding a funky quality, while big bubble letters – “Open 24 Hours a Day” – were painted bright fluorescent on heavily tinted windows.
It was a kava bar.
Kava bars have been commonplace in parts of Florida since the early 2000s. Originating from a crop of the Pacific Islands, where it’s long been consumed for ceremonial and medicinal purposes, kava is best known for its sedative, anesthetic, and euphoriant properties, and it can be found on store shelves across the country. Kava drinkers often cite stress and anxiety reduction as the primary benefits along with a relaxed mood and a gentle buzz. It’s also been a popular drink for many people chasing the sober-curious lifestyle or even alcoholics in recovery.
But my husband and I didn’t drink kava that day. We drank something else. In fact, and unbeknownst to us, we drank kratom tea.
If you’re unfamiliar with kratom or kratom tea, count yourself in good company, because, quite frankly, neither were we. Kratom, related to the coffee plant, is an ancient medicinal leaf from Southeast Asia, and it’s used for a variety of ailments including depression, PTSD, anxiety, and even chronic pain. A 2018 Netflix documentary “A Leaf of Faith” even claimed that kratom can be a cure for the opioid crisis without the deadly side effects, withdraw symptoms or addiction problems. However, unpleasant side effects, can, and do occur.
By the time I realized we might’ve ingested something other than kava, it was too late. Though it wasn’t all bad: I did experience a few hours of euphoria and a heightened state of awareness. In fact, while my husband felt light-headed and went to bed early, I was chatty and energized and cleaned the house. But remember, through most of the evening, we thought it was only kava.
Searching for answers, I went back the following day, and though it was mid-afternoon, the kava bar was busy, just like the night before, only this time, I asked questions.
“My husband and I were here last night and we tried those drinks right over there,” I said while pointing to the bar taps. “What were those drinks and what do they do?”
“Oh that’s our kratom tea,” he replied. “It’s like kava but more intense.”
According to the American Kratom Association (AKA), Kratom is not a drug, opiate or synthetic substance. It is an all natural and harmless herbal supplement that grows from a tree, and has been safely used in the United States since the 1970s. While advocates cite its benefits and safety, six states – Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin – have banned the supplement and the Food and Drug Administration, in 2012, announced the herb as an unapproved drug that is unsafe for consumption.
Part of the reason why kratom has a questionable reputation, as stated by the AKA, is due to “unscrupulous bad actors” in the marketplace that spike products with fentanyl, heroin, morphine, and other opioids. Since the industry is largely unregulated and consumers may end up purchasing adulterated kratom products, four states have now passed the Kratom Consumer Protection Act which sets guidelines on the manufacturing, sale, possession, age limits, and testing and labeling requirements.
And yet, the FDA continues to label kratom as a “drug of concern” despite its high demand and the enthusiasts who claim kratom saves lives. Just last month, an Oklahoma-based company had $3 million worth of kratom seized by the U.S. Marshals, after the Tulsa U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a civil forfeiture complaint on behalf of the FDA.
To be sure, the FDA isn’t alone in labeling kratom a dangerous substance. As I told others about my experience, I heard from neighbors and family members who had their own kratom stories to tell, although, they never actually consumed the product. But they knew others that had.
It was mostly drug addicts, they told me, trying to get off opioids and other narcotics such as heroin. Unfortunately, and in many cases, kratom became their new addiction, a common scenario for those in recovery, who may be seeking safer alternatives, but wind up in similar predicaments, even requiring treatment for kratom addiction.
In areas of South and Southwest Florida, specifically, the rise in kava bars coincides with the plethora of treatment centers and halfway houses in the region. Republican Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota recently filed a bill (HB 179) in January of this year titled the “Florida Kratom Consumer Protection Act,” which, if passed, would prohibit the sale of kratom to people under 21 and require manufactures to register with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS).
The need for sensible regulation can help provide better control over the flood of kratom products, including powders, teas, pills, and more. And there’s little doubt that consumers deserve better protections, even the AKA fully supports the regulation of kratom. But a well-informed and educated consumer is equally as important. Had my husband or myself known what was in those drinks that night, we would’ve declined.
We came for the kava, and instead, we got kratom. Don’t make our same mistake, unless, of course, you want to.
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