SCHENECTADY – Between opening a shop in the middle of a pandemic, and selling a controversial product, Tracey Hudson has her work cut out for her.
The Perth resident recently opened The Kratom Shop at 160 Jay St., selling mainly kratom, which comes from a plant called mitragyna speciosa grown in southeast Asia. According to Hudson, it helps users with everything from pain to energy management, and can even help people wean themselves off of addictive opiates.
Kratom certainly has its detractors: the federal Food and Drug Administration has warned people not to use it and the Drug Enforcement Administration has listed it as a drug of concern. Several states have made it illegal as well.
Yet, some users have said it’s saved their lives.
“If you told me four years ago that I would ever say plants before pills… I’ve never thought that until I actually experienced a plant that made major changes in my life,” Hudson said.
She began using kratom about four years ago when she was working as a sales executive in Buffalo.
“I was desperate for energy. I couldn’t make it through my day, I was suffering from depression and anxiety and Googling and researching if there was anything out there that could help me and I found kratom,” Hudson said. “Ever since about an hour after the first time I tried kratom I knew that I had to tell the world that this is out there.”
When she was furloughed from her job last summer because of the pandemic, she decided to take the leap.
“I think the furlough took away the risk aspect of quitting a pretty good paying job to start a retail store [selling] a relatively controversial product,” Hudson said.
Kratom has been making national headlines in the last few years after there were reports of overdoses with kratom mixed with other drugs.
“At low doses, it acts like a stimulant, either a strong coffee or people have likened it to a weak cocaine type of feeling,” said Alicia Lydecker, an emergency medicine physician and toxicologist at Albany Medical Center. “People in southeast Asia for years have been using it as a way to increase productivity when they’re working for that reason. Then when you use higher doses it has opioid effects that predominate.”
People usually take it in capsules or mix the powder with water or coffee, or disguise the earthy taste by putting it in smoothies. Hudson views kratom as a supplement and urges people to talk to their physician before taking it.
While some users have reported mild negative reactions, such as nausea, from Lydecker’s experience, serious negative reactions can occur when kratom is mixed with other drugs, and because it’s not regulated, it can be difficult for buyers to know if the product has been adulterated.
“Do I think the drug itself is all that dangerous? It’s hard to say without studies looking into it, but on the scale of things, I think it’s probably safer. But again, you don’t know what you’re getting,” Lydecker said.
Hudson’s shop is part of a chain, with other locations in Buffalo, Rochester and Brockport.
“We as a group have a relationship with a farm in Indonesia. They have a proprietary pasteurization process as well, so we know it’s safe and high quality,” Hudson said.
Since she opened the shop, she’s had some customers drive as far as two hours away to get there. She said one customer, who was addicted to prescription pain medication, recently brought her flowers to thank her for introducing him to kratom and incidentally saving his life.
“It feels great knowing that I can make a difference in somebody’s life like that,” Hudson said.
When it comes to weaning people off opioids, Lydecker said there could be a potential benefit.
“If you stop an opioid like heroin or oxycodone or morphine in either a couple hours or a couple days, people feel like garbage. They have diarrhea and vomiting and pain everywhere, sweats and chills; they just feel awful. If you stop kratom, you’ll get a runny nose maybe a little bit of not feeling well but it’s nowhere near as bad as the other symptoms,” Lydecker said. “So I think there is a potential use for it but again I just think that’s hard to say without doing formal studies like the FDA does on any other prescribed medication that we have for its safety profile.”
With the controversial nature of kratom, those formal studies may be a long way off.
“The DEA right now has it listed as a drug of concern,” Lydecker said. “I think that makes it difficult to study because no one is going to want to give funding for something that’s listed by the DEA as a drug of concern and addictive.”
“It’s tough because as a society, as a country, we don’t do proactive research a lot. We let some of the drug manufacturers do the research,” Hudson said.
There are an estimated 15 million kratom-users in the United States according to the American Kratom Association. Locally, the kratom community is growing, said Hudson.
“There’s still I think a lot of secrecy in kratom and a lot of people that want to keep it hush-hush because they don’t want to draw any attention to it … Six states have deemed it illegal so there’s always a risk of losing access to kratom,” Hudson said.
In New York State, a few bills concerning the sale of kratom have been introduced, one that would prohibit the sale of it to those under 21 passed the senate in 2019.
Yet, Hudson hopes it becomes mainstream someday.
“Honestly it’s made me a better person and it’s made me a better mom. It replaced a few different prescription medications for me. So it’s really changed my life for the better,” Hudson said.
Her Jay Street shop relies on foot traffic, which has been slow in part because of the pandemic. “It’s a huge challenge because it really cuts down on foot traffic. This will be a great place come non-pandemic times when Jay Street is hopping again,” Hudson said.