Illegal drugs come with serious consequences. Not only can these substances cause damage to the brain, body, and soul, but people caught with these drugs can face criminal prosecution. Some even go to jail due to their addictions.

Many of the substances officials consider illegal are well known. For example, most people know that they’ll face legal action if they’re caught with cocaine or heroin. But there are some drugs that fall into a blurry middle ground between legal and illegal.

Consider kratom. It’s legal in some parts of Florida, illegal in other parts, and in limbo at the federal level.

What is Kratom?

Before explaining kratom’s legality, it’s useful to explain what the drug is and what it is designed to do. Those talking points can help to explain why the drug is considered illegal in some parts of Florida.

Kratom is an organic drug, derived from a tree that is native to Southeast Asia. The United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reports that kratom works like a stimulant at low doses, helping people to stay alert and aware. At higher doses, kratom is a sedative, helping people to rest and relax. The DEA says the drug has been associated with psychotic symptoms, including hallucinations, and that repeated consumption can lead to addiction.

In 2016, research published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society proved that kratom works on the same receptors used by opioids like Vicodin. Opioids work by attaching to opioid receptors scattered throughout the brain and the body, signaling changes that cause euphoria. In time, the brain becomes accustomed to these chemical changes, and people feel compelled to keep using or feel sick without the drugs they’ve been using. This early research suggests that kratom works in the same way.

Studies like this are of grave concern to addiction experts. If kratom has the potential to cause large-scale addiction, as opioids do, it seems reasonable to crack down on the sale and use of the substance. Doing so could help to avoid a public health crisis.

The way officials crack down on use is to make substances illegal. This isn’t a step that has been taken throughout all of Florida.

Kratom in Florida

Kratom has been associated with at least one death in Florida, and according to coverage by local television station NBC 26, that death could have been accidental. The young person who died due to kratom was using unmarked packages of the drug, so he may have been unaware of how much to take in each sitting. He could have overdosed due to neglect.

Stories like this have led some communities in Florida to ban the sale of the drug altogether. In Sarasota, for example, it is illegal to sell kratom. Coverage from the Herald Tribune suggests that stores caught selling the drug can be required to pay a $250 fine per package. If the same store repeats the violation multiple times, that store could lose its license to operate.

Not all Florida communities have followed suit. Throughout the rest of Florida, the drug is considered legal to both sell and use. Local television station NBC 2 reports that the drug is easy to find throughout most of southwestern Florida. It’s sold in tea shops, convenience stores, and head shops. People in Florida who want to use the drug should have no problem finding it, and the use is considered totally legal.

That could change. As more research is published about how kratom works and what it can do, some communities are evaluating their laws and trying to determine if they should make a switch. Seminole, for example, thought of banning the sale of kratom within city limits in 2018, according to the Tampa Bay Times, but chose not to act due to public outcry.

People who use kratom in Florida should be aware of conversations like this. The drug they’ve come to rely on could be legal now, but that could change as soon as local officials choose to act.

The Impact of Federal Laws

While there may be few laws on Florida’s books that make kratom illegal, the federal government is also involved in the conversation. The choices the federal government makes could impact people at the state level.

In 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made a formal statement of concern about kratom risks. The agency reported that people were using it to treat:

  • Pain
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Addiction

The problem, per the FDA, is that kratom had not been approved to treat these conditions, and it had been associated with serious health risks, including deaths and addiction.

In August 2016, the FDA considered placing kratom on a list of controlled substances. In an interview with PBS News Hour, an expert on DEA policies explained that the FDA backed off of the kratom ban due to public outcry. But the conversation is far from over, this official explains.

The FDA places drugs in categories based on how likely they are to cause harm and how likely they are to treat a medical condition. Those substances that cause harm but no benefit are considered Schedule I drugs, and they come with the highest levels of penalty for manufacture, sales, and harm.

Other Schedule I drugs include heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine. Placing kratom in this category would make the drug absolutely illegal to sell within the United States.

Florida could, in theory, write competing laws that make kratom use legal within the state. Some states have taken a similar step to protect marijuana use and manufacture within their states, but even that comes with some risks.

In an analysis in America: The Jesuit Review, experts explain that federal laws can trump state laws. The federal laws regulate commerce, manufacture, and use of resources. Any or all of these things could be placed in jeopardy by the manufacture of illegal drugs. There is one clause, currently up for renewal, that protects states from federal action in terms of drug laws. But if that clause is not renewed, federal laws would take precedence, no matter what the state laws say.

Making Sense of the Laws

A drug’s legality or illegality does not directly relate to its safety. Consider alcohol. It is considered legal, and it’s widely available. But according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alcohol use leads to about 88,000 deaths each year. The drug may be legal, but it certainly isn’t safe.

People who abuse any substance should be concerned not only with whether or not it is legal, but whether or not it is safe to use. The research about kratom seems clear. People who use that drug are facing very serious dangers due to their use. Those who abuse the drug should look for ways to stop their use.

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