Photo by Kathryn Osygus

This story originally published online at UNC Media Hub. 

When Kevin Ward eats at a restaurant, he always draws a cartoon of President Lincoln on the bill. Art is his passion.

Ward, who lives in Wilmington, is a meat cutter at Whole Foods. Although he usually works 40 hours a week, he finds time for art after every shift. He started 12 years ago drawing cartoons, but now he mainly focuses on acrylic paintings. His bedroom dresser is filled with a hodge-podge of art supplies, which he sometimes rummages through to find inspiration.

But in 2020, Ward stopped painting when he started once again using kratom daily. He’d already quit twice because of negative side effects, including nausea, mood swings and exhaustion.

“I create art all the time,” Ward said. “It’s something I love to do. I started losing interest in that, and that was a red flag to me. Because I don’t ever really lose interest in that.”

Kratom is an herbal extract from a plant native to Southeast Asia. People usually take it in powder form, adding it to drinks, or in capsule form.

Kratom is legal in North Carolina. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced plans in 2016 to essentially make kratom illegal, they abandoned them after a public outcry from users, who swear by its therapeutic effects.

Kratom can treat anxiety, chronic pain and drug addiction, research shows. But it isn’t harmless. Emergency room visits that list kratom as the chief complaint have more than tripled statewide since 2017, according to data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Kratom never sent Ward to the hospital, but it changed his life for the worse.

Insane energy and crippling exhaustion

In December 2018, a coworker told Ward he should take white kratom during the stressful holiday season. The strain he took is recommended for boosting energy.

Ward mixed random amounts of kratom powder into drinks before his shifts. He liked how kratom made him feel. It gave him energy.

One day, Ward wasn’t paying attention and poured too much kratom into his drink. He immediately experienced an “insane amount of energy” and anxiety. Then he vomited.  

“And then the most crippling, exhausted feeling I’ve ever had,” Ward said. “I honestly felt like I could barely stand up, and this is as I’m getting ready to go to work. I went to work, and I even drank some energy drinks. Nothing seemed to counteract it.”

Ward quit kratom and remembers thinking that he threw away all of his powder.

He didn’t use kratom again until the 2019 winter holidays when he started adding one tablespoon of kratom to one drink daily. Once again, kratom gave him a helpful energy boost.

Then Ward started needing more to get the same effect. One spoon became two, then two-and-a-half. He was eventually adding three or four tablespoons to four or five drinks every day.

After increasing his kratom usage, he became angrier. He lost his temper frequently, snapping at his coworkers over minor things. He felt nauseous and exhausted more often than he felt energized.

Ward quit kratom again, and he took ice baths and cold showers to overcome the severe fatigue he felt during withdrawal.

Kratom is a “godsend” for sobriety 

For some people, kratom was their ice bath, helping them manage withdrawal immediately after quitting hard drugs. Others used kratom to manage the transition to long-term sobriety. 

Sarah W. knows kratom helped her during this transition period. She tends bar at Carrboro’s Krave Kava Bar, a business that sells kratom and kava – another legal botanical commonly used to self-treat pain and anxiety. 

Sarah previously abused multiple drugs.   

“Everything just started to come and partying and just having a good time,” Sarah said. “And then it started to be like, ‘I’m not really liking life. And let me just do this little more, and it wasn’t a fun thing anymore.’”  

Sarah uses kratom three or four times weekly, and she said kratom and kava are alternatives for people who want to self-medicate without using more addictive substances.  

“It’s a really big scary jump going into sobriety sometimes because they’re kind of just like, ‘Oh great well you got sober. Yay! Everything is better now,’” Sarah said.  “That is the first step of stopping drinking or stopping the drugs for so long.” 

After that first step, kratom helped Sarah, and many others, re-establish a sense of balance in their lives. Sarah said kratom helps people experience the sense of goodwill alcohol or drugs might bring – without using those addictive substances.  

Sarah found Krave during the second half of her first year being sober. She believes sobriety can be self-defined and that using kratom doesn’t mean she isn’t sober. She has been sober for two years. 

“All of these other feelings you never felt or never know how to deal with come up. All of these other thoughts,” Sarah said. “So, It was honestly such a godsend for me to have found this because it was like, ‘I don’t know how to be completely in my right mind right now without just something to help relieve the anxiety a little bit.” 

Kratom’s therapeutic potential

Studies of laboratory animals support claims of kratom’s therapeutic potential, according to a summary of existing research led by academics from the Netherlands’ Maastricht University. More than 20 of these studies suggest that kratom acts as an acute pain reliever. Twelve suggest kratom could treat opioid and alcohol use disorder.

In the last decade, only one study of human beings suggested that kratom had therapeutic potential. During this time, 16 clinical studies found no such evidence and suggested that kratom could cause severe dependence, fatigue, muscle spasms, anxiety and other health problems.

Kratom advocates often say that people don’t have adverse reactions unless they combine kratom with other drugs.

A 2019 publication co-authored by the director of the Central Ohio Poison Center suggests this isn’t always the case. It showed that two-thirds of kratom-related poison control calls between 2011 and 2017 concerned people who had only used kratom. Over a fifth of these people experienced agitation and elevated heart rate. Almost a tenth had seizures.

When asked about these side effects, a kratom seller in Carrboro said he’d only seen a handful of customers get nauseous or anxious—nothing worse.

Robert Roskind, 74, is the proprietor of Oasis, a business that mainly sells kratom, delta-8 THC and other botanical products. Kratom is Oasis’ most popular product.

Robert Roskind, 74, is the proprietor of Oasis, a local business in Carrboro, NC. Photo by Kathryn Osygus. 

Roskind said he believes spreading love is humanity’s main “assignment.” Spirituality is important to him, and images of the Buddha, Jesus, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bob Marley decorate his walls.  He sees kratom and other botanical products as powerful healing tools, and by increasing access to them, he believes he is carrying out this assignment.

Roskind charges $5 for a drink mixed with kratom or a bag with enough powder for one drink.

He also sells a larger pack for $21.50, which makes between 10 and 15 drinks.

Getting people to quit addictive substances has been a key motivation behind Roskind’s decision to sell kratom.

“I have people who come in all during the week and buy four, five, six big bags. And they’re controlling everything from alcohol addiction to chronic pain and deep depression,” Roskind said.  “I work here 10 hours a day. I deal with a lot of people coming through, 50, 60 people, most all of which have an issue.”  

Using kratom can also just be fun. Kratom is cheaper than alcohol, Roskind said, and it gives people a decent buzz without a hangover the next morning. Roskind drinks about four cups of kratom daily, each containing one rounded teaspoon of powder.

“I feel exactly like me in a much better mood,” Roskind said. “So you don’t get high, you don’t particularly get inspired like you would on smoking a joint, though you might because you’re in a better mood.”

What kratom took: “A void inside of myself”

But kratom doesn’t put everyone in a better mood. In 2019, it made Ward angry. In 2020, it made him numb. This was the third and final time he started using kratom daily—a decision he describes as a “terrible lapse in judgment.”

About 8 months after quitting kratom for the second time, Ward and his roommate were painting wooden logs for an art project. Ward was painting his to look like Vincent Van Gogh.  

He ran inside to dig through the disorganized pile of art supplies in his bedroom dresser, searching for materials to add to the logs. The bag of kratom he thought he threw away in 2018 was sitting at the bottom of the pile.

“And then I thought, “Well, there’s a little bit left in there. I might as well go and use it,” Ward said.

Ward decided he would only use kratom sporadically, to avoid repeating old mistakes.

But Ward was working up to six days straight during the pandemic. Panicked shoppers cleared shelves and demanded he cut much more meat than usual. This took a mental toll on him, so he branched out, trying different strains of kratom, including red kratom, which has a more relaxing, opioid-like effect.

Ward began doing kratom daily. Again. He was angry. Again. And he had no interest in his main driving force: his art. He decided to quit.

But because Ward had done strains with more opioid-like effects, quitting was much harder.

“This time, there was just this absolute feeling of a void inside myself,” Ward said. “I definitely think it messed with my spirit.”

Then his sister invited him to come see in Charlotte “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” a traveling exhibit that projects moving, 360-degree versions of the artist’s work.

Ward decided he would take a week-long break from work and use it to quit. He quit two days before leaving, since his withdrawal symptoms always started three days after not using kratom.

“Nothing seemed to really interest me. Nothing seems to actually matter. Nothing seems to be as poignant as it should be,” Ward said.

A key turning point came on the sixth day of Ward’s vacation, when he went to the Van Gogh exhibit and found that his mental fog was lifting.

“I still had an emotional experience with it,” Ward said. “His life, it was a very harsh life. And in his entire life, his art wasn’t appreciated. And the room was packed full of people just mesmerized by it. But I don’t mind saying I cried, because it’s an emotional thing for me.”

Ward managed to make it through the entire nine-day vacation without using kratom. And he hasn’t used it since.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated from an earlier version. 

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