ST. PETERSBURG (FOX 13) - Kratom an Asian plant that has been used for its stimulant effects since at least the 19th Century was declared an opioid by the FDA Wednesday.
The plant called kratom could soon become illegal.
That's disappointing to local kratom advocates and retailers who hope the government will reconsider.
At Johnny Vapors in St. Petersburg, customers drink kratom in tea form. Others take the herbal supplement as an alternative way to treat opioid addiction.
Supporters say it's a natural way to relax and, in some cases, it's saved lives.
But the FDA commissioner disagrees, saying there's no evidence it's safe.
Employees at Johnny Vapors say it’s an alternative lifestyle store. They sell e-cigarettes and brew their own kratom tea.
“People take the leaves, they grind it up into a powder and we make tea out of that,” explained District Manager Jose Silveira.
For some, it brings a relaxing effect. Others claim it treats pain, anxiety, and even drug dependence.
“They have different effects on people. They make them feel better, make them relax,” Silveira said.
But maybe too relaxed, according to the FDA. Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb declared that kratom compounds have the same effect on the body as opioids.
He said in a statement, "There is no evidence to indicate that kratom is safe or effective for any medical use," and said they'd received 44 reports of deaths involving kratom since 2011.
“When you look at all the autopsy reports, for the most part, there are other drugs in their system as well. Whether or not it's a combined effect, additive effect or synergistic effect, we don't know,” explained FOX 13 Medical Reporter Dr. Joette Giovinco.
Kratom is legal in Florida, except in Sarasota County. A 2016 effort from the DEA to make kratom a schedule 1 drug - like heroin - was met with protests.
Us attorney general jeff sessions spoke in tampa wednesday about the opioid crisis and what's being done on the federal level to end it.
“More Americans are dying because of drugs than ever before,” Sessions said.
Sean Oliphant knows from personal experience. He's a recovering addict. He says kratom is what ultimately helped him get clean.
“I kept using drugs and drugs and drugs,” he said. “I had one cup of kratom and I felt instantly relieved. I felt genuinely cared for here. This community has really saved my life.”
While Jose Silveira supports stronger regulation of kratom he doesn't think it deserves a total shutdown.
“It seems a little bit cloudy. I'd hope for there to be more information and for them to consider all the people that are enjoying this product safely,” Silveira said.
The FDA commissioner said they stand ready to evaluate evidence that could demonstrate a medicinal purpose for kratom but so far, are not aware of anything that would meet the agency's standard for approval.
This information now heads to the Drug Enforcement Administration for an official ruling. There's no timeline for when that might happen.