Local police issue warning about herbal drug used to counter other addictions

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WINCHESTER, Va. (WHSV) -- The Winchester Police Department is warning the community about an herbal drug being sold in our area that some people say is a weapon against opioids.

Leaves of Mitragyna speciosa, which are typically dried and crushed to make kratom. | Getty Images

Kratom is most frequently sold as an herbal tea. Investigators have tracked the sale of the drug to adult stores in Winchester, VA and Inwood, WV.

“We are very concerned about some recent cases involving Kratom. It’s often marketed as being a safe alternative to heroin or pain pills, but it is highly addictive and dangerous,” said Winchester Police Chief Kevin Sanzenbacher, and President of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition.

Kratom can cause psychotic symptoms like paranoia, hallucinations, aggressive or combative behavior, and seizures. Like opioid drugs, it can be highly addictive.

Dr. Kirk Cumpston, with the Virginia Poison Center, told WHSV's ABC affiliate WRIC that "It works to wean them off of heroin and other opioids because it’s doing the same thing,” Cumpston said.

Kratom is a tropical plant that grows in parts of Southeast Asia. The plant’s leaves can be smoked or steeped for tea to produce a stimulant or sedative effect, depending on the amount consumed. It can also be sold in gel caps or gum.

“We want to make sure parents are aware that this is much more than a vitamin or herbal supplement. Kratom’s effects on the body can include nausea, weight loss, insomnia, or respiratory depression, which could lead to death,” Sanzenbacher said.

Kratom is not yet regulated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as a controlled substance, but it is on the DEA’s list of “Drugs of Concern.” The agency cites a spike in poison control center calls involving Kratom use, including 15 fatalities nationwide from 2014 to 2016 that may have been linked to use of the drug.

On the other hand, however, researches say opioid abuse claimed more than 300,000 lives in the last 16 years. Some veterans and others say the drug helped them get clean off of opioids.

“I’ve personally seen about six people who are heroin addicts who are suffering through withdrawals and detoxing use Kratom and come off of heroin completely,” former addict Jeremy Tillem told WRIC.

Some recovery centers also advocate for its use.

“We’re dealing with a population that is sticking unknown substances in their vein. Fentanyl, heroin, God knows what they’re cutting it with. To eat a leaf for five days compared to that. It’s a no-brainer,” John Shinholser, president of the McShin Foundation, a recovery center in Henrico County, told WRIC.

Nonetheless, kratom or its active ingredients are already illegal in six states. Florida and New York introduced legislation earlier this year to make it illegal to sell the substance.

The Winchester Police Department is working closely with the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition to monitor the drug in our region. Friends and family members who have loved ones struggling with addiction are encouraged to seek help by visiting www.roadtorecovery.info for resources or to call Concern Hotline at 540-667-0745.