There's a new way people are getting high and you can buy it in stores legally right here in the Tri-State.
We're talking about kratom. Drug officials are concerned about the safety of the substance.
"It is illegal, there are some cases that have been prosecuted," said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.
DeWine is referring to a Central Ohio bust earlier this year where police uncovered a large amount of drugs, including kratom, a substance that causes opioid like effects. Now DeWine says their office is cracking down on places trying to directly sell the plant as a drug.
"It has not been approved for human consumption by the FDA," said DeWine.
Following that investigation, our undercover cameras toured the Tri-State to see how easy it is to buy the substance here. We found it's not too tough.
Employees with the Elite Smoke Shop on West McMillan Street in Clifton say they used to sell kratom.
"It got popular very, very quick. It was big on migraines with women. A lot of women did call and ask if we had it," said Faris Ihmeidan, an employee at Elite Smoke Shop,
Faris Ihmeidan says when they saw law enforcement cracking down on other stores in Ohio, they quickly took it off their shelves.
"That kind of damaged the repoire of kratom completely, I think a lot of people freaked out about that. We didn't even want to deal with the loopholes or the mess of selling it. We just got rid of it," said Ihmeidan.
But those drug busts aren't stopping everyone from selling it.
"Our customers asked me to put it on the shelves. I did the research, I found companies that were selling it and distributing it, so we put it on the shelves and it does sell," said E.R. Beach, owner of Hemptations.
FOX19's cameras went undercover and easily bought a few varieties of kratom from Hemptations in O'Bryonville. Beach says this is an all natural substance that's been around for thousands of years. He says they're not selling it as a "drug" but as kratom.
"We don't make any claims about what it does, or what it's supposed to do, or what it doesn't do," said Beach.
"This may be a plant product, but it's a plant product from the other side of the world," said Bill Mark with the Northern Kentucky Drug Strike Force.
DeWine stresses this is a product that mimics the effects of other dangerous drugs, including heroin, and it's emerging as one of their top "drugs of concern."
"There's always someone out there trying to sell you some drug that is supposed to make you feel better," said DeWine.
Alec Kleinsmith knows first-hand what it feels like to take kratom.
"When compared to taking a narcotic, the feeling is similar but it's a little bit more subdued," said Kleinsmith.
Kleinsmith is a 50 percent combat disabled veteran. He has had more than 13 surgeries on his arm. Suffering from chronic pain, he tried kratom.
"I decided to give it a shot, I've been taking it now for about two months regularly and it's made an amazing difference in terms of my pain management," he said.
The former Marine was taking narcotics for more than a year and he started developing a tolerance. He wasn't interested in his doctor's solution.
"Their counter for that was to offer me more medication. I wanted physical therapy, I wanted real help. I didn't want to just band-aid the issue," said Kleinsmith.
The Ohio crime lab says kratom can be addictive and lead to other dangerous drugs.
"My advice is unless it's been approved, stay away from it," said DeWine.
Kleinsmith argues kratom is not habit-forming and he doesn't feel any of the addictive properties that come from opiates or narcotics.
"As a veteran I have a lot of friends who are in the same situation as I am being combat disabled veterans. Really good people who I know who get hooked on their narcotics and ended up losing their jobs, losing their families and that's something that I really didn't have any interest in," said Kleinsmith.
Kratom hasn't become as big of an issue just yet in Northern Kentucky, but Bill Mark with the Northern Kentucky Drug Strike Force says it's something that's on their radar.
"A few years down the road we may be talking about Kratom the same way that we're talking about synthetic marijuana like K2, Salvia and bath salts," said Mark.
If law enforcement decides to ban the sale of the plant based out of Southeast Asia, local shops say it's up to them to make sure they're on top of what's legal and what's not.
"They have a responsibility to do research on the products that they're selling to make sure that it's not harming the public or society," said Ihmeidan.
"Until I find out that it is illegal or really harmful then I will continue to sell it," said Beach.
A handful of states ban the sale of kratom because it includes illegal synthetic cannabinoids as ingredients. Indiana is one of those states. Governor Pence signed that into law two years ago.
Ohio and Kentucky officials say it's going to take more research to determine just how dangerous kratom really is before deciding whether to ban it altogether.
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