Renegades

The Rapid Rise and Sudden Fall of a Kratom Kingpin

He built at $60,000-a-month business selling opioid alternatives out of his apartment. His clients say he saves lives. The government wants to shut him down.

The Rapid Rise and Sudden Fall of a Kratom Kingpin

Eric James had about a day before the dope sickness really kicked in. But he knew the opening bars of the overture well: In a few hours, the muscles in his lower back would start to spasm; his knees would rattle; his nose would run. But worst of all, the fog would set in, clouding his thoughts. He did not want to go through all of that again. So, on a Sunday morning in March 2019, with $150 in his pocket, he climbed into the backseat of a taxi, hoping that a 15-minute ride would bring him to the end of a 15-year habit.

The taxi stopped on a quiet side street in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. James, a 35-year-old freelance graphic designer with warm brown eyes and buzzed hair, sat on a bench outside of a brown brick apartment building, his fingers sweeping across the screen of his phone as he waited. He had taken his last oxycodone at 6 o’clock the night before — about 15 pills, all in one go. The effects had worn off by morning and left him with his daily pre-dose feeling of lethargy and dread. The onset of physical withdrawal was still a few hours away, but he could feel the storm gathering. It would thunder in his brain and strike lightning through his bones, if he didn’t do something about it. (“Eric James” is a pseudonym; he asked not to use his real name for fear of repercussions at work.)

At another building in another neighborhood, the money in his pocket could get him well for a few hours. He could satiate himself with one last handful of the oblong yellow pills known on the street as “bananas.” Yet James hadn’t come for his usual medicine. This time, he was determined to quit opioids; this time James was after a chalky, bitter-tasting powder that would tickle his opioid receptors just enough to keep him from a full-blown withdrawal.

The door to the building swung open, and a man emerged whom James only knew by his thick Brooklyn accent and pseudonym, John Dee. His face seemed to James not 40 years old but 40 years besieged. Dee had spent about a third of his life copping prescription painkillers and heroin at Brooklyn housing projects. A diamond-shaped white patch showed where his curly black hair started to recede, as if death had been coming but beat a quick retreat. Dee’s skin, carved by several sharp wrinkles, seemed tightly stretched over his facial bones. His black, square-framed glasses and furrowed forehead gave him a hawkish look.

Dee’s lips melted into a smile when he saw James, for whom he had prepared a carefully curated withdrawal kit. It came in the form of two sandwich bags full of greenish powder — and a big, warm hug.

Oren Levy found a new identity as John Dee, a sort of shadowy do-gooder who helps opiate addicts kick drugs. He does it by using a largely unregulated plant called kratom, a coffee-relative that can grow up to 100 feet high in the jungles of Indonesia, where much of the kratom sold in the U.S. comes from. Kratom has long been used in Southeast Asia for its pain-killing and mood-boosting properties, but the plant has only become popular in the U.S. over the last decade. Addicts are turning to it as a non-narcotic alternative to classic opiate-replacement drugs like methadone or buprenorphine, in the hopes that it is safer and less addictive. The main alkaloids in kratom reach the mu-opiate receptors, quieting the withdrawal symptoms that make opioids so hard to quit. Chronic pain patients and recreational users also take kratom for the subtle euphoric effects it provides. Users mix kratom with juice, brew a tea, or simply do the “toss and wash” method of choking down a spoonful of the powder and chasing it with a drink.

Between 3 and 5 million people in the U.S. use kratom, according to the American Kratom Association (AKA), an advocacy organization. But Kratom is having something of an identity crisis. Overpriced, low-quality commercial stuff is silently marketed as a legal high in gas stations and smoke shops, where it often sits next to things such as glass pipes and amyl nitrites (poppers). Online vendors like Dee, however, import high-quality kratom straight from Indonesia and sell it at a lower price than store-bought brands.

Kratom is in the crosshairs of regulation and may not be legal for long. Critics who want kratom banned say teenagers can easily get their hands on it. It’s already been banned in six states, the District of Columbia, and a handful of cities and counties. Legislation is under review elsewhere. For now, kratom entrepreneurs like Dee are hustling for a piece of an unregulated industry that, by some estimates, generates over $1 billion a year.

For the last six years, Dee has been running a one-man kratom operation out of his three-room Brooklyn apartment. He has improvised a makeshift packaging center inside, with each room serving a dedicated purpose for his business, Red Devil Kratom.

For Dee’s customers who hope kratom will help wean them off of drugs, the journey to recovery starts in his bedroom, where a printer spits out order forms and packaging labels for parcels that will travel across the city and state. Scales, bags, and various-sized scoops caked with kratom soot sit upon a worktable in the middle of a spare room, where Dee handles packaging. A stack of labels bears the words “Red Devil Kratom,” along with the company mascot: a diaper-clad red baby devil with a coquettish smirk and a trident. Two plastic bins beneath the table contain Dee’s immediate supply. A nearby storage unit houses several hundred pounds more.

Dee organizes his supply by color. Reds provide a body buzz and are typically called “slow” strains for their relaxing effects. Whites are “fast.” Greens are in the middle, offering both euphoria and stimulation.

An earthy smell not unlike green tea escapes when Dee opens the bins and scoops up some powder to weigh on the scale. Dee typically charges $18 for an ounce of kratom and about $25 for his super potent, enhanced blend. He also sells cannabidiol (CBD), an unregulated, nonpsychoactive hemp compound that has been heralded as a cure for everything from epilepsy to overly active pets.

Dee scribbles the name of the strain and customer on each label, adding “You rock!” to each one before readying the bags for shipping, all from his living room.

“I run my company from A to Z; there’s no help,” he says. “Sometimes I’m up till 4 o’clock in the morning.”

Dee came to the kratom industry after years of abusing opiates himself. About 10 years ago, he went cold turkey following what he calls a “spiritual awakening.“

“Something in my head just clicked, and I said, ‘What is this shit?’” Dee says.

At the time, he owned a nightclub where he worked full-time, and drugs and alcohol remained a constant during his early recovery. The party scene wore him down. In 2012, Dee quit the nightclub business to figure out his next career step. He had always wanted to work in the recovery sphere. A friend who directed a rehabilitation center suggested he try recovery coaching. Unlike therapy or counseling, which is clinical in nature, a recovery coach acts more as a motivator, confidant, and role model — helping clients focus on their future, rather than on their past. Dee went to school and became a certified recovery coach in 2013. But like the nightclubs, Dee soon found recovery coaching toxic. The job required him to live among those he coached, with their families, at their homes, and many of his clients still used drugs.

While he was already off of opiates himself, Dee wanted to help others kick the habit, and he pursued a growing interest in alternatives to mainstream treatments for opioid dependence. An internet search led him to a kratom vendor, from whom he bought $80 worth. At first, Dee used the plant for research, offering it to people via his Facebook group “Kratom Free Giveaway” in return for a report on how it affected them.

He received glowing reviews from recovering addicts. It boosted users’ mood and lessened the cravings after the acute withdrawal phase, a time when physical discomfort gives way to depression and longing for drugs. To Dee, the anecdotal evidence made an overwhelming case for kratom’s effectiveness in fighting opiate withdrawal.

The first kratom went quickly, and Dee bought another $80 batch. He gave most of it away again, but this time he sold a little bit to make his money back. He started the “Red Devil Free Giveaway” Facebook group, named after his own first blend of red strains. The name stuck, and he became known as the “Red Devil Kratom guy.”

Dee still juggled several part-time jobs while building his kratom business, working security at big nightclubs and doing recovery coaching. He says he never mixed kratom with his coaching, despite a growing belief in the power of the plant. (Recovery coaches are strictly forbidden from offering their own diagnoses or recommendations, although they can provide feedback and research on different holistic treatments if the clients bring up the idea first.)

Dee began devoting more time to Red Devil Kratom between 2013 and 2014, gradually building up clientele in New York City, and, at a high point, grossing $60,000 in a single month. He boasts of a seemingly endless list of mothers, sons, friends, and relatives — all of whom, he claims, owe their sobriety to him and Red Devil Kratom.

Eric James pocketed $110 of Dee’s kratom. The whole thing felt familiar: getting “the goods” from a stranger in a strange place.

Dee nodded as James told of a 15-year pill addiction, hard drinking, and a growing distance from his boyfriend, who thought that he had kicked the habit. While New York City has not been hit as hard by the opioid epidemic as the rest of the state (and the country), James, a 35-year-old white male, is the likeliest type of person to overdose and die, according to New York’s annual opioid report.

Dee told James to wait for mild withdrawals before taking the first dose. The energizing green strain would put some pep into James’s morning; the red would help him sleep at night. To supplement the kratom, Dee stressed the importance of 12-step programs.

James headed home with several ounces of kratom in his pocket. He couldn’t afford another taxi, so he took the subway. The following morning, he started the regimen, gulping down the kratom with a glass of juice. He drank the concoction a few times a day, per Dee’s recommendation. Symptoms of opiate withdrawal were “virtually nonexistent,” he says, at least in comparison to the past. Just a bit of cold sweats and some gastrointestinal discomfort.

“It blew my mind,” James says. “I thought, this is amazing. How does this happen?”

He still didn’t know a whole lot about why kratom does what it does. But it didn’t really matter. By Thursday, James had shattered his record of pill abstinence. It was the first time he’d been able to string together four opioid-free days in eight years.

Then Friday rolled around.

“Oh God, just being alone at home, my boyfriend was off at work. That’s when I would normally text my drug dealers again,” James says.

James began composing a message to his dealer while looking up Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, his heart hammering in his chest. Somehow, the 12-step meeting won out. James went to his first later that night and found comfort in the support network. Fellow addicts texted and called him to check up on his recovery. James had several numbers to call when cravings struck. Dee, who regularly attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings, was one of them.

Having passed the acute phase of withdrawal, James found that kratom relieved the back pain caused by years of working at a desk. The few negative side effects he experienced included constipation and the occasional bout of the “wobbles,” a common kratom side effect so named for the eye-twitching and dizziness that occurs if too much is taken.

The mood boost and relaxing warmth of kratom tempts James to redose more often than he thinks he should. He knows that kratom can be habit-forming, especially for a former addict, and he doesn’t want to take it forever. James views kratom as a step-down substance: something strong enough to keep cravings in check but not strong enough to provide a true high. But like other opiate-replacement treatments, it’s hard to know when or how to stop.

“Am I really sober?” James has asked himself. “Do I feel sober if I take it?”

Some within the recovery community frown upon kratom, believing that true sobriety requires abstinence from all mind-altering substances. Whether kratom is such a substance is hotly debated. But for people like James, the semantics of that argument and the nuances of the term “sobriety” don’t matter half as much as staying away from opiates. Anything is better than that.

Kratom is a murky business. Because it is relatively new to the American market, there is little scientific information about the effects of long-term kratom use for the treatment of opioid-use disorder. Much of the information online has been produced by those who have skin in the game — vendors, users, pro-kratom groups — or by government organizations and lawmakers that tend to portray kratom as a dangerous drug with potential for abuse.

While kratom remains legal in most of the country, the Food and Drug Administration warns consumers that the plant carries a risk of addiction, and in 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services recommended a ban on the chemicals in kratom, which would make it as illegal as heroin and LSD. Ultimately, the power to make a final decision about the scheduling of drugs lies with the Drug Enforcement Agency, which planned to place a temporary ban on kratom in 2016 but backpedaled after an outcry from kratom supporters.

Within the medical community, there are conflicting views on kratom’s potential for treating opioid abuse. Dr. Joel Nathan, a fellow at the American Society on Addiction Medicine, warns of the addictive potential of kratom, saying that those dependent on opioids “may stay on kratom longer than expected and may increase their intake.” Nathan adds that patients who use the plant for longer than intended would need a detox.

Online forums such as Reddit, whose kratom community includes over 75,000 members, contain a wealth of user reports. Some people claim to have used kratom for years and then stopped without significant withdrawal; others report withdrawal symptoms on par with opioids: sweating, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, depression and intense cravings. The “r/quittingkratom” subreddit, which has more than 9,000 members, features posts about the agonies of kratom addiction. Many users say a lack of information led them to believe that kratom was benign.

Addiction specialist Dr. Mohamed Elsamra, who runs a medical detox in Westport, Connecticut, says that he has seen a slight increase in the number of patients using the plant over the last few years. Although he notes the similarities between opiate and kratom withdrawals, he says that few people have come to him to detox from kratom. Ultimately, Elsamra is open to the idea of it as an opioid replacement.

“The thought of replacing one with another is very good … if it works,” Elsamra says. “I use all medications available (except methadone) to help to fight this, so I am open to the idea [of replacing] opioids with a nonregulated plant.”

Kratom’s lack of regulation worries Dr. Erik Fisher, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University. He makes an analogy to CBD, referencing a 2017 report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which reported on labeling inaccuracies in products containing CBD, suggesting that the same could happen to kratom.

“I’m not aware of similar studies on products labeled as kratom but can only assume that there’s a lot of variability in what is in the product,” Fisher says. “I think it is better to know that you’re getting what’s advertised.”

Perhaps most alarming, in April 2018 the FDA ordered a mandatory recall of at least 26 different kratom-containing goods from Las Vegas–based company Triangle Pharmanaturals, after salmonella was found in some of its products. Around the same time, the FDA also confirmed salmonella contamination in kratom products distributed by several other companies across the country. It is difficult to know to what extent such a contamination affected kratom sold by small online vendors; Fisher doesn’t think that this alone warrants a ban.

“Narrowly, one could take that as an argument to avoid kratom, but big picture, one could take that as an argument for better oversight and testing, especially given that people are going to use it anyway.”

Even without a ban, kratom’s legal limbo has created trouble for vendors like Dee. More than once, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has seized Dee’s shipments under the pretense that they contain “research chemicals,” unscheduled chemical variations of illegal drugs. Credit and debit card payments present problems because domestic banks don’t allow customers to use their cards to purchase kratom (vendors often open offshore accounts to process card transactions, or misrepresent their products to skirt credit card regulations). Dee claims that a Google algorithm change bumped his website down 800 places in the search results. As a result, his online business has slumped, and he laments that he now barely makes enough to sustain the operation.

“They play games and fuck me over,” Dee says. “I would’ve been a millionaire.”

In April, Dee and other kratom vendors felt renewed pressure when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released an ominous report about kratom. Titled, “Notes from the Field: Unintentional Drug Overdose Deaths with Kratom Detected,” the CDC presented data from approximately 27,000 overdose deaths collected from across the country between July 2016 and December 2017. The CDC analyzed the number of deaths in which kratom was detected in postmortem toxicology testing or determined, by a medical professional, to be a cause of death. Of those who died and were kratom-positive, multiple substances were present in almost all cases. Fentanyl and fentanyl analogs were listed as a cause of death in more than half of the cases; . after fentanyl, heroin was the most commonly found substance. Then benzodiazepines, prescription opioids, and cocaine. Kratom was found to be the sole cause of death in just seven cases, although the CDC stated that other substances “cannot be ruled out.” In total, kratom-positive deaths accounted for roughly half of 1 percent of the overdose deaths; yet the report caused a tidal wave of media coverage about kratom overdose deaths being on the rise.

Kratom users took to platforms like Reddit to fume about the report and its coverage. Dee agrees with many others in the pro-kratom community that the media serves as an echo chamber for government-produced misinformation. He believes it is all part of a conspiracy, orchestrated by the pharmaceutical industry, to keep people like James on long-term opioid maintenance drugs such as buprenorphine or methadone, a drug nicknamed “liquid handcuffs.”

People don’t go to kratom to get high,” he says, “they go to get off of something.”

While taking Dee’s kratom and attending AA meetings, James gained a newfound optimism about surmounting his 15-year addiction. But a month into recovery, he faced one of the most difficult tests of his sobriety: His parents were coming for a visit.

“I haven’t done a lot of things sober,” James says, “and one of them is being around family.”

The relationship was fraught. He was closest to his mother, but that wasn’t saying much. His father had worked in a factory in Michigan for 35 years and only spoke to James about mountain biking and other athletic hobbies.

“He doesn’t try or can’t relate to me,” James says. “He’s kinda selfish.”

James hadn’t spoken to either of his parents in 14 months, right up until the day they arrived in New York from Michigan. A text message suggesting where to meet for dinner was the first he’d sent to his mom in over a year. The urge to use again began creeping into his mind.

“I had it set in my head — it seemed like fact,” James says. “I figured it would be easier to deal with them under the influence.” He could get high one last time, he told himself. In a way, he thought he deserved it.

The night before his parents arrived, James told his boyfriend that he was going to a cafe to catch up on some reading. He had arranged to meet his old dealer, who lived six blocks away in a family neighborhood with brownstone buildings and a police station at the end of the street. James’s hands trembled as the dealer handed him 30 yellow 10-milligram pills. His tolerance demanded 15 at a time to get high.

The pills lasted just one night; James had taken all 30 by the time his parents arrived the next day. He didn’t tell his boyfriend, who had shared his excitement in counting sober days. He has never told his parents about his opiate addiction. The relapse remained his secret. Even though acceptance of past misdeeds is integral to recovery programs, there was still something too embarrassing about the ease with which all of the self-improvement could be undone.

James did open up to his parents about attending AA. Over dinner the night after his relapse, he exaggerated his alcohol problem, telling his mom that he wanted to try something new to cut down on his drinking. There was this unregulated plant that helped curb cravings, he told her. It was legal and didn’t get you high, but it killed the desire to drink. It also helped soothe the back pain that had long bothered him. His mom asked whether the plant was safe. James assured her that it was.

“That was an interesting conversation,” he says.

His mom gave him money for the kratom. After dinner, mom, dad, boyfriend, and James piled into a car and drove to Dee’s place. On the way, James chatted, mostly to his mom, about the AA program, how he’d made new friends and was hopeful for the future. His dad sat silently.

The car pulled up to the familiar brown brick apartment building in Brooklyn. James hopped out and jogged over to Dee, who was standing about 20 feet away. Smiling, Dee waved to James’s family, who remained in the minivan. When James came over, Dee gave him the usual stuff: bags of kratom and a hug.  Since then, James has managed not to relapse. But a round of crippling blows befell Dee’s business about a month later, in early June. Google struck down Red Devil Kratom’s business listing, which had amassed several thousand five-star reviews since the company began over six years ago. The reason, Dee was told, was that Red Devil Kratom was a “poor-quality shop.”

Instagram then shuttered the Red Devil Kratom page, which had over 5,000 followers; Facebook followed suit. Both were flagged for selling illicit items. Twitter suspended Red Devil Kratom’s account. Then came Dee’s PayPal, Venmo, Cash App, and personal Facebook page. He says that even his account on Tinder was canceled because it was linked to a blacklisted credit card.

To supplement the dwindling kratom business, Dee has been focused lately on promoting CBD, a substance that is not without its own regulatory challenges. He hopes that the business will take off now that it’s entered the mainstream. Dee’s CBD social media accounts remain active, even though, in theory, there is little legal distinction between the cannabis derivative and kratom.

For now, Dee and his Red Devil Kratom remain at the mercy of the regulatory agencies and tech giants. With the ever-evolving legal complications of kratom, Dee has no idea whether he will be in business next year.

“I’m lucky if I make any money now. My company has gone to shit,” he says. “I’ve been feeling kind of down about it. I question, ‘Do I really want to do this? Is it really worth all these problems?’”

Dee still believes it is. Kratom has given substance to his life, which was once fueled only by the pursuit of chemical bliss. The plant allows him to both serve and be needed.

“My mailman’s on kratom; my super’s on kratom,” he says. “Twenty years ago, no one asked me for anything.”