KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The first time she used kratom, Ashley McCaughan was scared.
Someone had suggested she try the controversial herbal supplement to fend off the aches and pains of her job managing a personal watercraft company in Florida. Shoving those heavy machines from the dock all day left her tired all the time.
But with the first drink, she "noticed a positive effect on not only pain relief, but my mood," said McCaughan, who is 27 and now lives in Blue Springs. "I was like a better version of myself."
As the country tries to stop a deadly epidemic of opioid abuse, more Americans — an estimated 15 million now — are turning to kratom to ease pain, quell anxiety and lift themselves out of depression.
But federal health officials want to ban it, warning that kratom, like opioids, can be addictive and lead to abuse. Three kratom-related deaths in the St. Louis area last year led local governments in the region to consider prohibiting the product.
Now one of its most vocal proponents is fighting to get states to pass strict regulations for kratom products instead of banning them outright.
The Virginia-based American Kratom Association is taking its case from statehouse to statehouse — including Kansas' and Missouri's. It wants states to adopt its Kratom Consumer Protection Act, which would regulate the preparation, distribution and sale of kratom products.
The group's lobbyists met with Kansas legislators last year, and recently pitched the regulations in Jefferson City. Kratom is legal to use in Kansas and Missouri.
Four states — Utah, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada — have adopted versions of the proposal that would also ban the sale of adulterated kratom products, blamed for recent deaths, said C. McClain Haddow, the group's senior fellow on public policy.
"Today, we have 21 states that are considering it. Missouri is one of them," Haddow said. "We're seeing real progress going forward. "We're encouraged by the response from the state legislators. We wish the FDA would align itself with the right public policy."
You can buy kratom and kratom products on the internet and in mom-and-pop vitamin and health food stores, vape shops, head shops and convenience stores. Still, many people have never heard of it, much less know how to pronounce it.
Some people say "KRAY-tum," some say "KRA-tm."
And they certainly don't know this: "It tastes like dirt," McCaughan said.
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"At first glance, kratom doesn't seem like anything special: a light green plant with red veins, about 2 meters tall," Vice, a culture and news website, wrote in July.
Its botanical name is Mitragyna speciosa, a member of the coffee family that is native to Southeast Asia, "with leaves that contain compounds that can have psychotropic (mind-altering) effects," according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
"Kratom is not currently an illegal substance and has been easy to order on the internet. It is sometimes sold as a green powder in packets labeled 'not for human consumption.' It is also sometimes sold as an extract or gum."
Most people, users say, take kratom in a pill or capsule, or brew it to make tea. Hardcore users mix the powder into water, but McCaughan said it doesn't dissolve, just floats on the top like cinnamon would.
"There are no historical records indicating when humans began consuming kratom, but the plant's benefits have been widely known for ages," wrote Vice, calling kratom "a magical leaf of sorts, having a calming and painkilling effect.
In Florida, "kratom is absolutely huge," she said. "They have kratom bars. You walk in and they have different flavors. ... They flavor it with different syrups. It's almost like a hipster tea bar."
She didn't feel comfortable taking kratom pills because both of her parents battled addiction. So she brews kratom tea, but it's no ordinary cup of tea. The brew relieves her physical pains and helps relax her without making her feel depressed, she said.
People with fibromyalgia, back pain, PTSD, arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, debilitating headaches and depression use kratom as a substitute for prescription drugs. But is it safe?
The Food and Drug Administration has repeatedly warned that kratom offers no medical benefits but could become addictive or even kill you. It says that people who are using it to self-treat pain, anxiety, depression and other medical conditions should instead be seen by licensed health care providers.
In 2016, the DEA announced plans to use its emergency authority to add kratom to its Schedule I list, which would effectively ban it. The DEA deemed kratom an "imminent hazard to public safety."
The American Kratom Association mobilized its then-8,000 members, who protested and flooded the DEA's website with their opposition. The agency withdrew its plan and ordered the FDA to research kratom more.
In 2017, "the FDA identified at least 44 deaths related to kratom, with at least one case investigated as possible use of pure kratom," the National Institute of Drug Abuse says on its website, noting that "most have involved other substances."
The FDA says it is "actively evaluating available scientific information" about kratom and "continues to warn consumers" not to use products that contain it.