There’s a new natural substance just about anyone can buy right now in South Florida that doctors say can be more addictive and dangerous than some illegal drugs.
It’s a substance many young people in the area are taking and substance abuse experts say it can be more difficult to get off of than heroin.
It’s called Kratom. It’s from the leaf of a tree grown in Southeast Asia and it’s legal in the United States.
Our Contact 5 Undercover Investigation revealed you can buy it easily at many local tobacco shops, over the Internet, or at Kava Bars in the area where it’s mixed into a tea-like drink.
Michelle Tesarek began ordering a drink that contained Kratom earlier this year at the Purple Lotus Kava Bar in downtown West Palm Beach.
“Something that I thought was just going to be a good time, ended up making me sick,” said Michelle.
"They just said ‘Try this, it gives you a euphoric feeling’,” she said.
Michelle said she didn’t know at the time that it can be highly addictive and has been banned in a handful of countries. She soon began to know why.
“In one instance, I had to actually pull over, because it was just way too much of an intense feeling for me,” Michelle said.
“I knew I was hooked on it, when I was given the medicine to block it and I still wanted it anyways to see if I could still get that feeling back because I missed it,” she explained.
It wasn’t until she went to a clinic that specializes in substance abuse that she realized how dangerous Kratom can really be.
“I have treated patients who prefer Kratom to heroin,” said Dr. Moran of the Wellington Retreat.
Doctor Moran treated Michelle and said the substance can have opiate-type effects for some people if taken in certain doses.
"It's quite freighting because most people who are introduced to it have no idea what the potential danger is,” said Moran.
In fact, Dr. Moran prescribed the same medication to wean Michelle off Kratom as he would prescribe to someone addicted to heroin. “They think that because it's not illegal, it's safe,” he said.
However the owner of Purple Lotus, Jim Scianno, who owns both area locations, said the natural substance is similar to drinking coffee.
“You have to do a lot, ridiculous quantities to get any kind of withdrawal,” said Scianno. “It’s not highly addictive,” he said. He said hundreds of his customers drink Kratom without any problems. You won’t find any warnings or age limits posted inside.
“It doesn't deserve a warning, unless you see someone abusing it,” said Jim.
By then, doctors said it can be too late. Including Doctor Raul Rodriguez who has seen more than 100 patients in his Delray Beach office who have had problems with Kratom over the past year.
“The worst one is actually Kratom leaf, that is the one that will get them hooked physically worse than any of the other ones,” said Dr. Rodriguez.
“It's definitely a mind altering substance and can cause problems when over used,” said Boca Raton Doctor Lacresha Hall.
It caused so many problems for Michelle, she checked herself into an inpatient rehab facility for a month.
Everybody thought it was the silliest thing to check myself into treatment for... but at the same time, I was scared to death,” said Michelle.
Kratom is a big substance in the rehab community. Doctors said many people are taking it as a substitute for drugs like heroin or oxycodone. It does not show up on a drug test. Many doctors are now trying to get the drug banned.
By Dan Krauth
June 30, 2011