Confusion persists over whether the herbal substance known as Kratom is legal in the state of Tennessee.
When Narayan Rabindranath purchased Kratom earlier this month, his lawyer said he bought the kind he knew was legal. That’s why he never thought he’d end up in jail for it.
“It’s unreasonable, unfair, it’s un-American, really,” said Jesse Lords, who is representing Rabindranath.
Kratom comes from a plant in southeast Asia. Advocates say the herbal supplement reduces pain and boosts energy.
Critics claim Kratom has addictive properties and can even act like an opioid.
While synthetic versions of Kratom were banned years ago, Kratom in its natural form has been legal in Tennessee.
The issue became a point of contention during the latest legislative session.
“The current situation is that there is no restrictions whatsoever on Kratom,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, during a House floor session in April. “As was pointed out on this House floor, a 7-year-old could go buy it.”
After weeks of debate, lawmakers agreed to exclude natural Kratom from a list of revised Scheduled drugs.
Last week Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill that in part, makes it illegal to sell Kratom unless it is in natural form and labeled. The same measure also forbids people under the age of 21 to buy or possess Kratom if under the age of 21.
“Natural form” means dried, cut and sifted Kratom leaf or raw Kratom leaf powder, according to the new state law.
But this month Rabindranath, 30, landed in jail, charged with felony possession of a Schedule I drug after police found powdered Kratom in his car, according to a report filed by Millersville Police.
Rabindranath’s attorney maintains police found botanical, natural Kratom in his client’s car.
“It’s absolutely garbage,” Lords said. “No question about it. Completely garbage.”
In January, a man named James Gray was cited for simple of possession of “Schedule I” Kratom, according to the ticket issued by the Sumner County Sheriff’s Department.
But Kratom in its natural form is not listed as a Schedule I drug, according to Matthew Parriott, a spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
“Is this a confusing law?” asked reporter Alanna Autler.
“It is,” said Portland Police Chief Anthony Heavner.
Heaver said he thought Kratom was illegal in Tennessee before Haslam signed the latest bill last week.
When it comes to Kratom, investigators face a problem.
“It is beyond the scope of current forensic capabilities - in Tennessee and elsewhere - to determine if the active ingredient is naturally or synthetically derived,” said Josh Devine, a spokesman for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Heavner said that’s why officers must rely on discretion.
“Unless it’s labeled natural form, how’s my officer to tell?” he said.
In December, Portland Police arrested Joshua White, who claimed the drugs in his car were Kratom.
He, too, was charged with felony possession of a Schedule I drug.
The police report states field tests indicated the substance tested positive for the drug MDMA.
But at this time, official results are pending.
Lords has raised questions about the credibility of field tests conducted by police officers.
“Is it possible your department has arrested people for a substance that’s legal?” Autler asked.
“I have no idea,” Heavner said. “I couldn’t comment on that.”
Heaver could also not comment on White’s case.
Rabindranath, White and Gray were all arrested in Sumner County, just miles away from the Kentucky state line.
In fact, the nearest Kratom shop sits just 350 feet over the Kentucky-Tennessee border.
Tim Woods, part owner of The Kratom Barrel at Avery’s in Franklin, KY, said the proximity to the border is not a coincidence.
“People from Tennessee come up here and buy all the time,” Woods said.
Even though Woods sells products legal in both Kentucky and Tennessee, he fears what could happen after customers cross the border.
“It’s basically the officer’s call,” Woods said. “They could see any sort of powder, it could be even a spice from the grocery store and they could decide to arrest somebody.”
The new law in Tennessee goes into effect July 1.
Rabindranath was released from the Sumner County jail last week.
A judge determined Rabindranath should be released if the Kratom in his car could not be declared synthetic or natural, according to Lords.
Lords is also representing White and Gray.
He said he wants the District Attorney to drop the drug charges for his clients.
Lords said he’s even considering filing a civil rights lawsuit against the county.
The Sumner County District Attorney’s Office did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
The Tennessee Attorney General issued an opinion in December 2017, stating possession of the Kratom plant in its natural, botanical form should not subject a person to criminal prosecution under Tennessee law.
Last week the FDA issued a warning to three marketers and distributors of Kratom products for illegally selling unapproved Kratom-containing drug products with unproven claims about their medical benefits.
This warning follows a public health advisory issued by the FDA last November, citing the health risks associated with the use of Kratom.
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