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The kratom playbook: Working the refs

In the third part of our series on the botanical supplement kratom, we uncover how a police officer’s death prompted an army of keyboard warriors and the American Kratom Association to double-down on a narrative of moral panic — and the media went along for the ride.

(CN) — On the night of Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017, Matthew Dana was home in his bathroom when his lungs flooded with blood. His girlfriend found him choking on it as he died.

Moments before, the 27-year-old Tupper Lake, New York, police sergeant — and Tupper Lake High School football and hockey player, North Country Community College graduate, National Honor Society member — had been fit and active. He had joined the police department in 2012 and made sergeant in 2016. When not busting drug dealers as part of a county narcotics task force, Dana pumped iron and spent his days off hunting and fishing as a member of the Tupper Lake Sportsmen’s Club.

Dana’s death shut down the tight-knit village of about 4,000 inside the Adirondack Park in Franklin County: on Aug. 10, the mayor ordered all Tupper Lake village offices closed so staff could attend Dana's funeral services.

“He was the nicest kid,” Franklin County Coroner Shawn Stuart said in a phone interview. “I’d be happy if he would have married my daughter.”

A lab test found that Dana had 3,500 nanograms of mitragynine per deciliter of blood. He had died from a kratom overdose.

“The only thing wrong with the guy was [a hemorrhagic] pulmonary edema,” Stuart told the Adirondack Daily Enterprise newspaper, “and the only thing in his system was this crazy amount of kratom.”

And with that statement, all hell broke loose.

The Enterprise story made its way to the r/kratom subreddit, whose members flooded the paper’s email and voice mail inboxes, and online comment section, insisting the report was wrong.

“It was really unexpected,” said Aaron Cerbone, the reporter who covered the story just a few months after joining the Enterprise staff. “I had never seen anything like that before with comments from people all over the country...some people calling it fake news, attacking the [victim’s] family and me as the writer, and some just wanting to tell their stories about their experiences with kratom.”

Then the kratom industry piled on. “Widely Publicized Pair of Deaths Likely Due to Non-Kratom Factors; Bogus Death Reports in 2017 Seen as Replay of Ill-Informed DEA Push in 2016 to Ban Coffee-Like Herb,” the American Kratom Association announced in an October 2017 press release targeting Stuart and other coroners. In it, Jane Babin, the San Diego patent lawyer the AKA had engaged to cast doubt on the FDA’s list of over 40 kratom-related deaths, suggested steroids killed Dana.

“Medical literature does provide links between the use of anabolic steroids and hemorrhagic pulmonary edema,” Babin said.

The AKA press release also contended another kratom overdose victim in Tampa, Florida, 27-year-old Christoper Waldron, could not have died from kratom — because the Hillsborough County medical examiner’s office had allegedly made a mistake eight years earlier in determining the cause of OxiClean pitchman Billy Mays’ death.

“Based on the totality of circumstances, any reasonable person could be confident that kratom did not kill Christopher Waldron any more than cocaine killed Billy Mays," the release said.

Cerbone dutifully wrote the story, emphasizing there was no evidence that Dana had used steroids. Stuart would later release the lab results showing Dana’s blood was tested for 232 substances — steroids included — and every one of them had been ruled out.

The AKA then released another broadside claiming Stuart was in cahoots with the DEA and the Hillsborough County medical examiner in a “shadow campaign” to smear kratom, claiming unspecified “public reports of coordination between the two otherwise widely separated New York and Florida medical offices.” The association submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the DEA seeking evidence of its claims.

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The DEA was promulgating a “massive campaign of misinformation,” AKA board member Dave Herman asserted in the press release, “in nationwide conference calls with law enforcement officials in communities across America…to justify their proposed ‘emergency scheduling’ of kratom.” He said federal authorities had received “clear documentation that kratom had not caused a single death,” apparently in reference to the AKA-sponsored Babin report.

“And for me I didn’t personally feel crazy attacked,” Cerbone said in an interview. “But for the family and the community, this was very tough.”

The coroner did feel attacked.

“The attacks on me personally and my office were just outrageous,” Stuart recalls. “The bizarre stories that some of these groups came up with, they really took it to another level. It was exhausting. It went on probably maybe three or four months, maybe six months. I have friends all over the country they were contacting me saying, ‘What the hell is going on?’”

Tupper Lake police Sgt. Matthew Dana. (Tupper Lake Police Department photo via Courthouse News)

What was going on was a targeted, coordinated industry propaganda campaign. It continues to this day. For this series, Courthouse News examined eight deaths that medical examiners attributed to kratom alone, but industry-paid spokespeople insist those medical professionals are mistaken — or worse. It’s part of a pattern.

If the FDA says a person died from kratom, the kratom industry and its acolytes claim they were a poly-drug addict who died from something else. When the medical examiner concludes someone died from kratom, they attack the medical examiner. When a reporter writes about a kratom overdose, they call it fake news. A mother joins a bereavement group, they call her a liar.

That was my sister’s experience when she joined a Facebook group for parents who lost young children. Within hours of her telling the group how James had died, two new members appeared insisting it’s impossible to overdose on kratom.

“I said he had passed from kratom, and I get lambasted,” my sister told me, adding that she left the group because of it. “People were saying I better check his death certificate because he couldn’t have died from kratom.” The bereavement group’s administrator reached out later and apologized, banning those members who had attacked her, she says. I was not able to track them down for an interview.

No evidence, it seems, will satisfy the American Kratom Association and its legions of keyboard warriors that their drug of choice can be deadly — only that more study is needed. The industry’s strategy is to frame the kratom debate as a replay of marijuana regulation in the 1930s, when a benign plant with potential medical benefits which cannot cause real harm was demonized.

But with mounting evidence that, unlike weed, kratom can kill, the industry’s efforts appear similar to the tobacco industry’s 20th century playbook: sponsor your own research to create controversy, cite letters to peer-reviewed journals as if they’re research, attack reporters, suppress or ignore contrary research, try to convert lawmakers and regulators directly. So far, the strategy has worked.

A Google search on kratom brings up sober reports from the Mayo Clinic and experts that mention its potential harms, but these are swamped by vendors and enthusiast forums parsing and pitching the product. Glossy features in ViceRolling Stone, Wired and elsewhere quote AKA-affiliated researchers extensively, suggesting federal authorities and neutral medical experts are trying to create a moral panic. “Once you scroll past a few scary articles from the DEA, FDA, and the Mayo Clinic,” the Wired reporter noted, “kratom’s online presence is somewhat chic.”

Early in my research I came across The Kratom Information and Resource Center’s “Media Watchdog” site, touting a study claiming 92% of news stories mentioning kratom “were unfair and unbalanced” and urging readers to sign a petition directed to U.S. news organizations.

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While it’s unclear the petition ever influenced — or even reached — news organizations, The Pain News Network, a nonprofit online news outlet for chronic pain sufferers, covered it uncritically for its claimed 1.8 million readers.

Meanwhile, a peer-reviewed study published in the journal Deviant Behavior by independent researchers found that media coverage was actually fair.

“I think what struck me from the beginning about kratom was that the media seemed to be doing a relatively good job of reporting about kratom — meaning that, for once, it seemed to be relatively balanced coverage,” said University of Alabama associate professor O. Hayden Griffin III, who teaches criminal justice and drug policy. “They did not seem to be portraying a panic like they so often have.”

Griffin’s study, which news outlets ignored, suggests it was precisely this lack of “moral panic” that led the DEA and FDA to back off their plan to list kratom as a Schedule 1 controlled substance.

The Kratom Information and Resource Center is not a registered nonprofit, according to Guidestar’s listings. Its website (which went offline shortly before press time) contained no information about its owners. Its Twitter account, (@KratomFact) with under 1,100 followers, last tweeted in November 2020. The mailing address is a two-bedroom apartment on 16th Street in Arlington, Virginia.

The organization did not respond to emails. But Max Karlin, a public relations man with The Hastings Group who was listed as a contact for the journalism survey, answered his phone.

“I’m not even sure if it’s an active entity,” Karlin told me in late October, adding he’s not sure who was behind the group because his boss set up the account and has since died. “I was just pushing out press releases,” he said. “I really don’t think it was part of AKA. I’m kind of surprised that my name is still associated with that.”

Hastings Group lists AKA as a client currently. The nonprofit paid Hastings no less than $306,000 between 2016 and 2018. 

Searching for the root of the Kratom Information and Resource Center led me into a thicket of similarly named nonprofit kratom advocacy groups that popped up between 2015 and 2017, then faded away as the AKA asserted its dominance.

There’s the International Kratom Foundation, a DC-based nonprofit with no assets or income reported; Kratom United, headquartered in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, also with no money or public footprint. The National Kratom Education Center was based out of a UPS Store in Port Lucie, Florida. It never filed a tax return so its nonprofit status was revoked, but its annual report to Florida shows a resident agent called Riff Raff Nation, whose principal is Isaac Cubillos.

In an email, Cubillos said he “was brought in by one of the directors to essentially help them shut down the nonprofit.” He promised to put me in touch with the other founders but did not follow up.

Florida corporate records show another of that organization’s founders, Ross Fallacaro, is an officer of Tribaldudes.com, which sells powdered kratom and liquid kratom extract — kratom shots. He was an officer in both the National Kratom Education Center and the National Kratom Coalition. He did not respond to an email sent to his online business.

The National Kratom Education Center also listed James R. Deavers as a director. His Linkedin profile sayshe is an Alabama-based truck driver and massage therapist who also serves as a director of the American Coalition of Free Citizens, yet another kratom advocacy group that briefly inserted itself into the kratom debate.

“Review Of DEA Kratom Public Comments Shows Strong Support Among Vets, Doctors, Cops and Seniors For Coffee-Like Herb,” the February 2017 press release from the American Coalition of Free Citizens and the AKA said.

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The Hastings Group placed the release online. It was republished on Reddit and by a celebrity news aggregation site.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the groups’ analysis of the public comments — which the AKA had urged its followers to make after the DEA announced its intended ban in 2016 — found “the face of kratom consumers is the face of America today,” and marveled that only 113 commenters out of 23,116 favored the proposed ban. “When you have so much anti-kratom propaganda circulating at the state level and misleading talk of a public health crisis, one would expect more public comments in support of what the DEA is trying to do,” the release said, identifying the AKA as “a consumer-based nonprofit organization . . .here to set the record straight,” and the American Coalition of Free Citizens as “a nonpartisan organization with members in every state” with a website launch scheduled for “late winter 2017.”

A search of Guidestar found no listing for The American Coalition of Free Citizens. Google searches in 2021 did not find the organization’s website. It appeared to be a private Facebook group with 323 members as this past August. Deavers did not answer an email asking how the group started and whether he or it was involved in the effort to prevent the World Health Organization from banning kratom.

American Kratom Association founder Susan Ash at her home in Oregon. (Photo courtesy Susan Ash)

“So a whole bunch of organizations were formed to compete with the AKA,” says Susan Ash, who founded the AKA in 2015. She describes a subculture in which vendors chartered industry organizations to lobby government officials with little sense of strategy or unity. Many kratom people “come from a background of addiction,” she says, and “became a little militant.”

A few months after the Coalition of Free Citizen’s study was published — at the same time the AKA was attacking Tupper Lake Coroner Stuart — the AKA ousted Ash over thinly veiled accusations of misusing donor money.

“The things I was accused of were ridiculous,” Ash said in a December interview from her home in Oregon. Ash threatened to sue the AKA for defamation but did not. She remained active in the kratom movement until recently. In May 2021 she tweeted that she was “in the process of removing/blocking followers” who are “part of a volunteer base forced to sign & stay silent on social media by #AKA ‘.org.’”

“I found out that every single person that got on their kratom defense council — whatever it’s called — they all signed a nondisclosure agreement so they weren’t allowed to say anything negative about AKA,” Ash says. “So when I found that out, I parted ways.”

AKA’s online volunteer guidelines indicate the organization tightly controls its messaging. Those who sign on to its “American Kratom Protectors” program must agree to a code of conduct requiring them to keep their political viewpoints “low key,” and tell the organization whenever a reporter asks to speak to them. It says they’ll be replaced if they fail to comply and swears them to secrecy. “Please remember being part of this project means you must keep the information shared with you confidential unless or until you are given permission to share it,” the agreement states. “This means do not post on social media and do not share with friends. Keep it confidential!”

Other kratom advocates say the AKA changed for the worse after ousting Ash. “A lot of us won’t work with them,” said Drew Turner, a disabled veteran who fought to keep the drug legal in 2016 and still relies on it for pain relief. “They’ve done a lot of dirty things. I won’t go into it [but] there’s a lot of money you’re not seeing. The industry puts a lot of money into peoples’ pockets. It’s not illegal. [But] it’s a very dark and dirty circumstance.”

On Thursday: The law and the profits — a look at kratom’s political underbelly.

Screenshot from the American Kratom Association website detailing the rules for organization volunteers.

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