It is a bright, sunny, day in Florida. All across the state people are enjoying the oddly perfect January weather. The people who have been living in the state for a while sit around in jeans and light jackets, while the tourists and snowbirds lounge around in shorts and t-shirts. The bars bustle with fans of the Patriots and the Chiefs as the two teams battle it out to find their way into the AFC Championship game. As the beers pour faster and faster, the energy in the bars grows more rabid, and soon two perfect strangers are yelling at each other about whether or not New England cheated, or whether or not Andy Reid is a coach who is capable of coaching a winning team. As the exchange grows more heated the wearied bartender tells them to leave, a recommendation the two angry, drunk, patrons refuse to comply with, and suddenly the local police have arrived in order to hand out trespass orders to the two, usually mild-mannered, citizens who have now embarrassed their friends and family.
Right down the street, though, at a heavily patronized kava bar people are playing ping pong, typing on computers, talking with each other and complaining about the local Internet service provider and how they never work correctly. Instead of beer, or liquor, these people drink little known beverages called kava and kratom. Their tempers rarely flair, and when they do the scene quickly deescalates with the crack of a joke from one of the other patrons. As if from an era gone by the two who previously were yelling at each other about a difference of opinion are once again friends, laughing about their shared movie interests and musical tastes.
The drinks they sip on have a bitter taste before the bartenders add whatever flavors the customers request get added to them. Before adding the various flavors the kratom is reminiscent of a strong tea that has not been sweetened by too much fake sugar, while the kava can only be compared to mud in both flavor and consistency (which is probably why those who drink it refer to it as, “getting muddy”). They each talk about the different effects the drinks have on them, ranging from energy, to euphoria, and relaxing.
Unlike alcohol, where the large body of the people eventually reach a point where their cognitive abilities have worn away, the people drinking kratom seem sharp and as though they are in control of all of their facilities. The conversations remain fresh and, for the most part, calm, absent from the repetitive nature that normally plagues drunken conversations. Even though the culture is different than one most people who have spent their formative years jumping from bar to bar, it is a welcoming one, with people striking up friendly conversation with anyone who happens to walk up. Even those who seem to be stricken with the worst social anxiety appear to flourish in the environment. It is easy to see why this community of people has been steadily growing in the state since the first kava bar opened 14 years ago.
The community of people hangs out as though today is just any other day in their lives, but unlike a month ago there is an underlying concern that their lives may be disrupted by the Florida legislature. Currently, there are bills in both the State House and Senate that would effectively ban kratom in the state. Even with the disparaging news, the community laughs along with each other, choosing to have faith in a system that is considering taking away the beverage some of them have been enjoying for years.
“I started drinking kratom five years ago,” Rianna Fie of St. Petersburg said. “Since I started drinking it I found myself being happier and in more control of my life overall. The community here welcomed me unconditionally, which was something I never experienced in the bar scene.”
Everyone who drinks kratom in the community has their own story about what it has done for them. Many of them talk about what their lives were like before they made the switch to kratom, and a lot of their stories are very similar. They were not fans of the bar or club scene. The idea of spending all of their time drinking or doing drugs did not speak to them, and they went searching for a social environment where they would not be surrounded by people who did. They were looking for a different option than what all of their high school and college friends seemed to enjoy, and they found it in kava and kratom.
“Before kratom I was a loner and hermit,” Conner D’Amato, an employee of Bula on the Beach, said. “When I first started coming to Bula I was still suffering from social anxiety. Kratom gave me an opening, it relaxed me, without feeling out of control like I do whenever I drink alcohol. I met the only friends I’ve ever known at these bars.”
Even though the news has recently been talking about kratom as though it is a new drug that recently hit the market, it has actually been in use for thousands of years. It is made from the leaves of the kratom tree, a member of the coffee family, and is usually made into a tea, no matter what the mainstream media would have their readers believe.
“It can be taken as a pill,” Sean Simpson, owner of Low Tide Kava Bar in Gulfport, says. “But normally it is brewed into a tea we drink socially. I don’t really know anyone who takes it in pill form. None of the kava bars around town sell it as a pill, as far as I know.”
While the media reports that kratom is a “new legal high” and compare it to synthetic drugs such as “Spice,” it is actually just dried, ground up leaves, much like teas such as chamomile, or oolong.
“After years of hanging out in bars and getting tired of the same scene, and the same conversations day after day, I was pretty happy to find kratom, and the kava community,” Ben Morris, an intern at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium said. “I like that I can hang out here at night playing ping pong, or card games, or whatever, and tomorrow I don’t feel like I was out drinking, but I also get my social time with the people who have become my family.”
This is not the first time kratom enthusiasts in the state of Florida have had to deal with the possibility of a ban. Last year Kristin Jacobs, the same Representative who has submitted the bill in front of the state house this year, sought to have kratom banned throughout the state, even though there has not been a single death attributed directly to the plant. While Rep. Jacobs pulled her bill last year due to constitutional drafting defects contained within the verbiage, she remained vigilant in her attempt to ban the plant from the state, even after a failed attempt in her home county where she acted as mayor before being elected to represent Broward County in Tallahassee.
“If you go to one of the bars down the road you can tell everyone has been drinking. They’re all being loud, and obnoxious,” Jon Sterner, a city employee of Gulfport, FL said. “Here everyone acts the same. They really have no reason to go after kratom.”
Right now, as the bill sits in committee, the community sits and waits to hear of the fate of kratom. Their moods remain high, though, certain their choice to remain sober will remain unhindered by the legislative process. If the bill does pass, what is the plan for the future?
“I don’t know,” one of the patrons said. “I would hate to have to leave the state because one woman convinced our representatives that kratom is bad, but it is something I would consider if I didn’t have a choice.”
While the community continues to treat today as though nothing is wrong, there is an underlying fear that one day they could be considered criminals. The only answers to their problem, should the state decide to ban kratom, would be to move from the state where they currently reside, or look for another acceptable alternative to the bar and drug scene, of which they never wanted to be involved.