Some SF Vape Sellers Hope to Overcome Ban with Kratom

Be warned: the opioid-like plant from Southeast Asia poses its own risks.

It’s not a great time to be selling e-cigarettes in San Francisco.

On Feb. 6, a federal ban on most cartridge-based e-cigarettes went into effect. Prohibiting what have widely been decried as youth-friendly flavors like fruit, mint, and a host of dessert-inspired options (including Juul’s infamous “crème brulee”), the Trump Administration edict notably stopped short of entirely banning vapes.

While California continues to mull over its own full ban on the industry, e-cigarette users are currently still able to purchase refillable menthol- and tobacco-flavored cartridges as well as single-use devices intended for disposal and available in a veritable candy aisle of tastes. San Franciscans with a yearn for nicotine vapor, however, will have to travel outside the city starting this month as a June ordinance completely prohibiting e-cigarettes is now in effect.

As a result, many smoke shop owners in San Francisco are now expressing desperation over their odds of staying in business.

“I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do,” Asad Sharifi told the San Francisco Chronicle last month. As the owner of the Sunset’s Cheaper Cigarettes, he estimated he was likely to lose $12,000 in sales in light of San Francisco’s vape ban.

Some in the city are taking drastic measures, like Smoke Time’s Mohammed Ibrahim and his son, Ahmad. The family-owned store located in San Francisco’s Mission District is planning to help offset what they expect to be $100,000 in lost annual revenue from S.F.’s vape ban by selling the herbal supplement kratom, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

For those who aren’t familiar with the substance, kratom is a plant indigenous to Southeast Asia that has long been used in the region as a stimulant. In fact, kratom (or Mitragyna speciose) is a tropical evergreen tree in the coffee family, which explains why people consume it (most often by chewing or smoking its leaves) to stay alert, though that’s not its only purported value.  While research on kratom remains scarce, it is also sometimes utilized as a treatment for chronic pain and opioid withdrawal, as well as less frequently being enjoyed purely as a recreational substance.

Legally speaking, the substance is permitted in the United States, although the DEA did make an effort to categorize kratom as a Schedule I controlled substance in 2016. Public outcry in the form of an online petition with 140,000 signatures submitted to the White House — as well as individual letters to the DEA sent by 9 U.S. Senators and 51 members of the U.S. House of Representatives — ultimately led the agency to reconsider.

That’s a good thing, as it would be entirely unwise to dismiss kratom as a dangerous substance without an immense amount of study. One of the key lessons the onset of the legal cannabis industry has taught us is that it’s infinitely more difficult to prove the value of a plant once it’s already been classified as illicit. Thus, further research is absolutely required to ensure a full understanding of the values (and possible dangers) that come with kratom.

In lieu of such data, however, does it really feel like the children of San Francisco are safer now that smoke shops are selling an unproven, mind-altering plant instead of e-cigarettes? For one, kratom may not be as addictive as nicotine, but that doesn’t mean it’s not addictive.

“It’s a fascinating drug, but we need to know a lot more about it,” Dr. Edward W. Boyer told The New York Times in 2016. A professor of emergency medicine and author of several scientific articles focusing on kratom, Boyer warned that users of kratom are “potentially… at just as much risk” of addiction as those who use opiates.

Addiction isn’t the only issue. Between 2010 and 2015, reports of kratom-related poisoning increased ten-fold in the United States, according to a Center for Disease Control study published in 2016. Reported side-effects for kratom range from more temporary discomforts like anxiety, nausea, and increased urination to more serious concerns, including respiratory depression, liver toxicity, and, in rare cases, death.

Kratom is now outlawed in many of the places that first brought the plant to prominence — including Thailand and Malaysia. Several countries in Europe have passed similar restrictions, as have Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. On the domestic front, the FDA stated in 2019 that kratom was “not approved for any medical use” and further suggested it was “potentially unsafe in commercial products available in the United States.”

No one is arguing that vapes are healthy, but pivoting to kratom is, at best, a lateral move. Vapes were never legally available to underage users either, leading one to wonder if San Francisco is truly convinced that swapping out e-cigarettes for quasi-legal psychoactive flora will ultimately be a win for the city’s youth.

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