(CN) — Alexandr Gorelik felt enormous pressure on the afternoon of Jan. 30, 2018, so he stopped at the Roots kava bar in Miami and drank several bottles of a concentrated herbal extract to calm his nerves.
His wife Nathalie’s cervical cancer had returned, and her doctors couldn’t do much for the 33-year-old mother of two boys who needed more care than Alexandr alone could give. Nadev was only 10 and Nathan, who is on the autism spectrum, was 12.
When they got home, Alexandr, 35, got a shot of vitamins and took his regular Xanax, plus more of the extract of kratom, a tree found in tropical regions of south Asia with leaves that are touted as a miracle cure for everything from sports pain to heroin withdrawal. A few hours later he was dead from an overdose. Nathalie died a few months later, and Nadev and Nathan were now orphans.
“It was a nightmare, everything that happened,” Nathalie’s sister, Cristina Tipacti, said in a phone interview. “He was for sure addicted. The day he passed away he drank like six little bottles. My mother only speaks Spanish. She told the cops she threw away so many bottles because she didn’t know what it was. She thought it was like energy drinks.”
Tipacti said Alex, a former opiate addict, had used kratom for just a few months before he overdosed. He acted like “a funny drunk” while on the drug, she says, but he had also suffered a seizure.
“My mom found him shaking on the floor and like white foam coming out of his mouth. She called an ambulance; they took him to the hospital,” Tipacti said. “This was maybe a week before he passed away.”
The family believes the powerful kratom shots may have reacted with Alex’s prescription Xanax, though no one at the hospital even knew about the unregulated supplement he’d been taking in ever-increasing doses.
“The place he was buying it from wasn’t regulated and it’s out of business now,” Alex’s sister, Gina Gorelik, said. “I think it’s dangerous. I think he was like just increasing the dose and no one told him not to.”
Gorelik decided to file a lawsuit as she learned more about the kratom industry. “Honestly I think the more cases people file and win, the more likely this is to be shut down,” she said.
The main problem was finding the manufacturer. “So we sued the kava bar because we were unable to determine the manufacturer,” the Gorelick family’s attorney Daren Stabinski said. “The bar had gone out of business.”
The case was settled in early 2020 with a payment to the family, according to Stabinski.
That’s how it goes in the kratom world. Thousands of small importers and pill manufacturers jockey for market share, working out of unmarked warehouses and even home garages and kitchens, wholesaling their wares to head shops and bars that can be as ephemeral as a lost pet flier tacked to a light pole.
When compared to opioids or Covid-19, kratom’s death toll is tiny. But the substance’s popularity appears to be growing. Fans of kratom, including the comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan, have recommended it to a subculture of Americans increasingly skeptical of conventional medical science. The burgeoning market for kratom points to a dysfunctional regulatory system that allows potentially dangerous substances to exist in a gray area where safety testing, manufacturing consistency and dosage levels are optional at best — a profitable place for unethical businesses and criminals.
Once it clears customs, kratom is perfectly legal in most of the U.S.. Its proponents say it’s as safe as coffee and impossible to overdose on, and openly mock the FDA and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s studies claiming it has contributed to the deaths of more than 150 Americans.