On a recent Sunday night, I went with some friends to a bar in Williamsburg, to drink pitchers of kratom. The bar makes big batches of tea by stirring powdered kratom, an herb grown in Southeast Asia, into boiling water. They put it in the fridge and serve it cold, like iced tea.
Plain kratom tea looks like muddy water and tastes like a viscous wheatgrass shot, so the bar offers a choice of mixers: passion-fruit juice, hibiscus tea, lemon juice, oat milk. For $10 you can add a shot of delta-8, which is knock-off THC.
Kratom comes in colors the way weed comes in strains. The bar menu offers gold (“most euphoric, balanced, mood boosting”), green (“euphoric, heady, giddy”), white (“stimulating, fights fatigue, helps focus”), and red (“relaxing, pain relieving, mildly sedative”). A friend explained that “gold is like Adderall; red is like Xanax.”
Everyone ordered red. Half a glass in, one guy started scratching his face and his back, feeling the kind of itch he gets after popping a Percocet. Another person said he felt hot, then abruptly left. Later, he admitted he went to throw up, but by the time he got in bed, he felt “amazing.” The next day, he texted: “It was nice and euphoric … my body felt lighter than it is.”
There are several kratom bars scattered across New York. In Los Angeles, they’re usually out east, in Atwater, Glendale, and Reseda. I’ve heard that many hookah bars serve the drug “low-key.” Kratom bars tend to be less raucous than regular bars; customers are friendly because they are high on kratom.
You can buy 500-gram bags of powdered kratom for about $70 at any New York City smoke shop. Find it behind the counter next to the disposable vapes and bongs. It’s the same deal in most places around the country, except for a few counties, like San Diego, Denver, and Sarasota, and six states (Vermont and Wisconsin, among them) where it’s illegal. Most people buy it online anyway. It’s cheaper that way.
Kratom isn’t new—people in the industry suspect it came to the U.S. from Southeast Asia sometime in the 80s or 90s—but its popularity is. Around New York City, you’ll see smoke shops with kratom signs out front. Instead of drinking a beer or taking a Xanax, many young people are brewing a cup of kratom tea.
“It seems to really have become pervasive across [New York] in the last year,” says one person who lives in Chinatown. She’s been drinking kratom for four years, since she was finishing college. “I got really into it immediately,” she explains. “It’s just such a treat.”
Up & Down
It would be ridiculous to bring kratom to a nightclub and snort it off the rim of a toilet, like it’s coke or ketamine. First of all, no one snorts it. Putting it up your nose is the least effective way to ingest it. Second of all, it’s an everyday drug—something to get you through an afternoon, not help you forget about it.
In smaller doses, which is how most people take it, “it’s like the opiate version of coffee,” a 24-year-old tells me. For a generation of people fed pharmaceuticals, it’s the chemically induced equivalent of sobriety.
Part of kratom’s appeal is its versatility. Depending on how much you take, it gives you a different high.
“I use it like Adderall,” one person tells me. He sometimes drinks it before work to make reading “really dry” documents more “engaging.” If he takes enough, he says, “it can get to the point where you just want to share everything that you’ve just found.”
Another person says he drinks it before going to the gym so he can “go harder” while lifting weights.
It’s a good downer, too. “I think about it often as like an alcohol substitute, because I’d rather not drink every night of the week,” says the person who lives in Chinatown. “But I usually want something to take an edge off most days of the week.”
Another person, who moved to New York four years ago to model, says he started taking kratom capsules four times a day instead of smoking blunts. “It was much more pleasant than weed,” he explains. “It helps with anxiety, so it’s like you feel good all the time.”
“I think about it often as like an alcohol substitute, because I’d rather not drink every night of the week.”
The first boon for kratom’s American public profile was in August of 2016, when the Drug Enforcement Agency announced its plan to make it a Schedule 1 drug. Its report states that kratom can cause seizures, comas, tachycardia, vomiting, hallucinations, poor concentration, and, occasionally, death. (According to several scientific studies, people who have overdosed with kratom often have harder drugs, like fentanyl, heroin, or prescription opioids, in their system, too.)
Kratom purveyors, the American Kratom Association, the Botanical Educational Alliance, and lovers of the herb swiftly petitioned Congress to rethink the move. In September, hundreds of demonstrators took to the White House to drink kratom in protest. One month later, the D.E.A. rescinded its notice. (A similar cycle occurred in 2018.)
Jenn Lauder, the director of marketing and advocacy at PDX Aromatics, a Portland-based tea, coffee, and kratom company, says that prior to the ban an estimated four million Americans drank kratom tea or swallowed capsules. After the D.E.A. announcement, kratom sales surged. “So many more people saw it for the first time and said, ‘Wait a minute, what is this? I want to see what the fuss is about.’” Today, Lauder estimates there may be upwards of 10 million kratom buyers.
Jim Sourek, who works at the kratom wholesaler Top Extracts, says that, after the ban, his company “could not even keep kratom on the shelf. It was blowing up so fast, and so furious—it really sparked a lot of growth in the industry.”
In addition to the D.E.A.’s effectively broadcasting the potential fun of drinking kratom, Lauder thinks the legalization of marijuana has helped boost kratom sales. “It’s in all the smoke shops now—and smoke shops are becoming more and more ubiquitous with legalization.”
But Lauder is quick to clarify that kratom is a “really, really different product.”
“It’s not a drug,” she insists. “This is a food substance—a tea, something that people consume as a drink.” Even Los Angeles’s premiere health-food market, Erewhon, which sells $20 “maca bomb” smoothies, carries tonics with (negligible) amounts of kratom in them.
That’s part of the appeal of kratom: it gets you high, but it doesn’t feel as druggie as something that goes up the nose or in the veins. “There was never really a stigma around it—there was never people being nervous about trying it,” one person tells me. “It just seemed like something that was available suddenly.”
“There’s been periods where I’ve wanted something that isn’t an actual addictive drug, but when I want some kind of feeling of euphoria or pain relief,” another person explains.
“There was never really a stigma around it.”
Except many people who drink kratom regularly do seem to be addicted. After swallowing it every day for five years, the male model I spoke to decided to stop. When he quit, he felt “generally lethargic, stupid, and [had] very low self-confidence,” he explains. He says he felt “retarded” for three months.
“It’s just such an embarrassing thing to be addicted to—it just feels so silly,” says another person, who started taking kratom five years ago, when he was kicking an OxyContin habit. “You know, there’s no romantic way to be addicted to kratom. It’s not like pills or heroin or something like that.” The process of quitting wasn’t romantic, either—he was in bed for three days.
Many people drink kratom in cycles—maybe three days on, three days off—to avoid those withdrawals. Besides, compared with pills or heroin, the drawbacks are nothing. The highs aren’t that high, but at least the lows aren’t overdosing.
“I have a bunch of friends who do, like, two or three grams while working just as a little pep,” one person in his late 20s told me. “It’s nice to feel something when you’re staring at a screen for 10 hours.”
“I definitely don’t hate it,” he said, “but it’s not fun and satisfying in the way that coffee or alcohol or any hard drugs are.” Even so, he’s been drinking it for four years.
Jensen Davis is an Associate Editor for AIR MAIL