Opiate-like high from legal herb sold in Lowell

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LOWELL — The 2 Brothers Smoke Shop & Vape store sits at the corner of Mammoth and West Meadow Roads and at the intersection of controversy over the sale of an unregulated herb called kratom.

MaryBeth Murphy, the clinical director for the Megan House Foundation, which provides residential treatment and sober living for women, told the Board of Health that she was concerned about the proliferation of smoke shops in Lowell, like 2 Brothers, that sell kratom.

“On the corner of Mammoth Road and West Meadow, two convenience stores opened up and it really looks like a circus,” Murphy said during the Wednesday night meeting at City Hall. “They have neon lights with a big cigar-type of blunt with smoke and neon signs flashing ‘kratom, kratom, kratom’ … Kratom is very addictive. It’s mind altering, and it can be abused, especially with younger people.”

According to previous reporting in The Sun, kratom is the trade name for mitragyna speciosa, a plant indigenous to Southeast Asia that is part of the coffee family. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration does not regulate the herb, and the plant material is available for purchase in a variety of forms, including a fine powder from ground-up leaves that can be made into a tea or placed in a capsule for oral consumption.

A reporter visited the 2 Brothers store on Tuesday, and purchased 30-gram packages of Organic Red Maeng DA and Organic Trainwreck from a wall-sized display. The product is made by Earth Kratom and is marked as “Not for sale to minors! 18+ only,” and to “Keep out of reach of children.” The entrance to the store has a sign that says “21+ only allowed.”

Both powders had a spice aroma similar to thyme and basil. The warning label on the back of the package said that kratom is an “unapproved dietary ingredient. Ingesting Mitragyna Speciosa can be dangerous.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse describes kratom as an herbal substance that can produce opioid- and stimulant-like effects. The agency said it supports and conducts research to evaluate potential medicinal uses for kratom and related chemical compounds toward understanding the health and safety effects of kratom use.

Kratom users were quoted in the 2021 Sun article as saying they used the herb as a natural treatment alternative for mood disorders, as well as a safe substitute to pharmaceutical opioids to address chronic pain.

But Murphy is hoping the herb becomes illegal, because, she said, “It’s very damaging.”

“Kids are walking right past this corner,” she said. “The bus stop is right there because there’s a school up the street.”

The McAvinnue Elementary School is about a mile away from the store, but several other smoke shops are in the neighborhood, including RISE Recreational Marijuana Dispensary.

Since kratom is not a federally controlled substance like LSD, heroin or cocaine, Tobacco Control Director Cesar Pungirum said the BOH was limited in its enforcement of purchase by adults, but he warned that age-restricted vape stores roll out products in hopes of spurring more widespread use.

“The store that [Murphy] mentioned, it’s a vape store,” Pungirum said. “So that is only an adult retail tobacco store. It doesn’t mean that other convenience stores might not have this in the future. They’re building up a base with vape stores first — we see that with other products. So, at some point, you could see [kratom] in a convenience store.”

Pungirum told the board that the city could pass an ordinance against the sale of kratom, similar to one it passed in 2014 that prohibits the sale of cannabinoid products known to as delta-8 and delta-9. The active ingredient is tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC, found in the cannabis plant, of which marijuana and hemp are two varieties. The products are packaged in a variety of ways such as gummies, chocolate and candy.

“Delta-8 THC has psychoactive and intoxicating effects, similar to delta-9 THC (i.e., the component responsible for the ‘high’ people may experience from using cannabis),” the FDA website states.

It urges consumers to keep the products out of the reach of children and pets and cautions users that concentrated levels of the products “have not been evaluated or approved by the FDA for safe use in any context.”

Pungirum said his department is educating retailers about the ordinance against the sale of delta-8 and delta-9 products, but not yet issuing citations.

“If we encounter the product, we’re educating them and asking them to remove the products,” he said. His inspectors are also educating retailers about kratom.

But Murphy urged a stronger response to kratom.

“These products are very alarming and are problematic within several communities impacting middle school-aged youth,” she said. “The last thing we need in our community is more available substances that can do harm and create additional addiction problems for individuals.”

The board’s motion to request Pungirum and Director of Health and Human Services Lisa Golden create a proposal for restricting the availability and sale of kratom unanimously passed.

The Board of Health next meets Aug. 7 at 6 p.m. in the Mayor’s Reception Room on the second floor of City Hall.

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