DELRAY BEACH — The room is dark. The music is relaxing.The bartender at the Kavasutra bar is friendly, asks if you’ve had kava before. He gives you a brief history of the root long used in South Pacific traditions. It all sounds intriguing.
“You go to Starbucks to start your day. You come here to end it,” the bartender says.
A small bowl appears, containing a drink mixture of kava root and flavored syrup, like cheesecake or amaretto, to mask the root’s earthy taste.
A slice of pineapple accompanies the bowl. The bartender recommends chugging the kava and using the pineapple as you would a lime after a shot of tequila.
Soon the tongue and lips tingle, the throat goes numb and a feeling of mellow euphoria takes over.
Kava is the newest trend in hipster brew, with kava bars opening in downtown West Palm Beach, Lake Worth, Melbourne and, most recently, Delray Beach in recent years.
The bars don’t sell alcohol, but a selection of kava, kratom (a similar root), coffee, energy drinks and snacks. And while kava, which has sedative and anesthetic properties, is legal to drink for both juveniles and adults, it currently has local authorities growing increasingly worried and has made it to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s list of drugs and chemicals of concern.
The Kavasutra bars in West Palm Beach, Lake Worth, Delray Beach and Melbourne in Brevard County also are all tied to the two alleged masterminds behind Mr. Nice Guy, one of the country’s most popular brands of synthetic marijuana.
While Dylan Harrison of Lantana and John Shealy of Royal Palm Beach await trial for a federal charge of defrauding the United States in connection with selling and manufacturing synthetic drugs across the country, they continue to work at their second source of employment, the kava bars. Shealy is part owner in the Melbourne kava bar. Harrison is part owner in the Lake Worth and Delray Beach bars.
Back in July, Keith Engelhardt — part owner of the West Palm Beach Kavasutra — spoke of his business and noted “it’s legal to sell kava.”
An attorney representing Harrison declined to comment for this story and Shealy’s attorney didn’t respond to a request for comment after previously declining a few weeks ago.
Some authorities believe that kava and its cousin, kratom, are on a similar path to that of synthetic marijuana, a substance once widely sold legally in Palm Beach County but has since been banned by the county commission.
While not considered drugs, kava and kratom do affect the mind and body, experts say.
“It’s another drug out there that’s being called not a drug. That’s so hard to deal with,” said Kevin Bandy, the director of outpatient services at the Hanley Center, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in West Palm Beach. He says kava and kratom can cause mind-altering sensations in its users and can be highly addictive.
“It all looks like addiction,” Bandy said, “but then you would think, ‘I can’t be addicted to something that’s not a real drug.’ ”
Kava is a shrub whose roots are used to make a drink commonly used in the South Pacific islands for social, ceremonial and medical purposes. To enter a traditional Fijian village, one drinks kava to show respect.
The root is sold in different forms in the United States as a dietary supplement and is often promoted as a natural alternative to anti-anxiety drugs and sleeping pills, according to the DEA.
Kratom, a tree indigenous to places such as Thailand and Malaysia, has been used as an herbal drug and is in the same family as the coffee tree. Kratom can be sold as tea leaves, incense and spice, yet it is often packaged as “not for human consumption,” similar to how synthetic marijuana and baths salts are labeled. Despite that packaging, it’s widely known that people often drink or smoke these products.
Kratom, which also can be formed into a liquid, acts as both a stimulant and a sedative, depending on the dosage amount used. It has been banned in numerous countries in Southeast Asia and Europe.
No deaths have been connected to either kava or kratom in Palm Beach County, according to the Florida Poison Information Center.
And because the substances are legal, Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputies do not track kratom and kava, a sheriff’s spokeswoman said.
Deputies did arrest a man in 2010 on suspicion of driving under the influence. Napoleon Samuels said he drank kava at the Lake Worth Kavasutra. Samuels, who is now 48, told deputies at the time of the arrest that he felt that the “kava tea” did “mess him up” and that he feels like he is “under the influence,” according to a sheriff’s probable cause affidavit.
Deputies suspected Samuels of being under the influence after they found him in his Ford Explorer, which was partially on the sidewalk. He fell asleep while leaning against a pillar, was sweating, swayed side to side and was “disoriented and not aware of his surroundings or his actions,” the deputy wrote in the affidavit.
His case was later dismissed.
Scott McFarland, the director of Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center’s emergency room, says he hasn’t seen such a problem with kratom but calls the use of kava a “major epidemic.”
In 2002 the FDA alerted consumers and health care advisers to potential risk of liver problems with the use of kava.
“There’s a lot of contention about kava. It’s a ceremonial drink , so people say, ‘This can’t possibly be a relapse’,” McFarland said. But it is a problem, he added: “They’re not engaging in a ceremony. They’re going to a kava bar and spending 60 bucks on kava in a night.”
He said two patients were in the hospital about a month ago after they mixed kava with a muscle relaxant and were experiencing extreme hallucinations.
Kava and kratom have fallen into the hands of recovering addicts: Some use the substances as a substitute for cocaine. Because they’re not illegal, the addicts become confused as to how they can be addicted to something that is not considered a drug, Bandy of the Hanley Center said.
DEA agents also were confused about the legality of the product. During the nationwide sting operation that caught Harrison and Shealy, the DEA seized dozens of kilograms of kratom. Agents didn’t know what the substance was, as its packaging appeared similar to the synthetic drugs, but they soon learned that it was not illegal.
While the DEA is seeing more of a problem with kratom rather than kava, a spokeswoman says the danger of both is that the user doesn’t know what is really inside what they are consuming.
“It’s not monitored. It’s not regulated by any government agency,” DEA spokeswoman Mia Ro said. “These are easily available to young people, it’s not very expensive, it can be bought at head shops, on the Internet, at smoke shops and it’s advertised as a legal high or alternative medicine.”
While Ro says kratom can be looked at as the new synthetic marijuana, she also says it’s different in that kratom is from a tree and it’s an herbal substance, while the synthetic drugs are made with chemicals. It’s similar, she says, to the synthetic products because “you never know if the manufacturer, if they’re adding additional substances.”
“It’s a drug of concern because of the things we’ve learned from other countries. It has a tendency to be highly addictive and as I’ve read in other articles and studies, is that people use this as a substitute for heroin abuse,” Ro said.
“It isn’t illegal at this time. We just don’t have enough information about it, but because of the little that we do know, that is why we are concerned about it.”
What is kava?
Kava is a perennial shrub native to the South Pacific Islands, including Hawaii.
Kava beverages are prepared by chewing or pounding the rootstock to produce a cloudy, milky pulp that is then soaked in water before the liquid is filtered to drink.
There is an increasing use of kava for recreational purposes. The reinforcing effects of kava include mild euphoria, muscle relaxation, sedation, and analgesia.
What is kratom?
Kratom is a tropical tree indigenous to Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar and other areas of South East Asia.
Kratom is promoted as a legal psychoactive product on numerous websites in the U.S. On those websites, topics range from vendors listings, preparation of tea and recommended doses, to alleged medicinal uses, and user reports of drug experiences.
Kratom is mainly being abused orally as a tea. Chewing kratom leaves is another method of consumption.
Source: Drug Enforcement Administration
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