Kratom Target of Tort Lawsuits

Kratom (mitragyna speciosa) is an herb extract that comes from the leaves of an evergreen tree sold in Southeast Asia. ‘

Matt Wetherington

In the United States, kratom is sold as an energy booster, mood enhancer, pain reliever and antidote for opioid withdrawal. 

The largest kratom company – OPMS – warns on its website: 

“Only for use as a botanical specimen. Mitragyna speciosa is an unapproved dietary ingredient. The manufacturers/re-sellers of this product, therefore, cannot advise on its use. Ingesting Mitragyna speciosa can be dangerous.”

Type in kratom into Google and the first item to pop up is from the Mayo Clinic under the headline: Kratom – Unsafe and Ineffective.

Now come Atlanta trial lawyers Matt Wetherington and Drew Ashby. 

They represent Dana and John Pope who lost their son Ethan Pope after he consumed OPMS Kratom, a product sold at gas stations and smoke shops throughout the country.

“You don’t expect to go into a store and find something similar to heroin between energy drinks and breath mints,” Wetherington said. “We intend to hold every single person and entity involved in the distribution and sale of these products responsible.”

Due to its potentially lethal side effects, the FDA has issued an import ban on kratom. 

“Despite the ban, kratom distributors continue to bring it into the U.S.,” Ashby said. “They are knowingly poisoning our communities. The kratom industry hides behind pseudoscience and well-funded interest groups that peddle kratom as a miracle drug. They try to keep the public from finding out that kratom is highly addictive and deadly.”

The New York Times reported in 2019 that there have been 91 fatalities involving kratom out of a total of 27,000 overdose deaths examined by the CDC. 

“We are on the bleeding edge of an epidemic that is not really understood,” Wetherington told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last month. “Those are the just instances where someone had the forethought to suspect kratom use and then reported it up to the CDC.”

“What we’re seeing now is closer to 100 deaths per month that are directly attributed to kratom. And we’re seeing as well that a lot of the kratom that is sold is adulterated. So the kratom itself, in many instances has fentanyl or other drugs that are in it. There is no kind of purity testing, or anything like that in the marketplace right now.” 

“But in addition to that, we’re also talking about other items that are pretty normal to have in your system like antihistamines or Advil, or alcohol or just normal over the counter vitamins.”

How did kratom get the green light from the FDA?

“Kratom didn’t get the green light from the FDA. The FDA has issued an import alert stating that it can’t be imported. There is a process to go through to get a product on a drug schedule. At some point, the process was essentially hijacked. It’s not just a scientific process, but also a political process. And at some point, the process was hijacked on the political side. And that’s one of the things we are investigating.”

“I’m not a fan of an outright ban of kratom. But people shouldn’t be getting this product without knowing what they are getting. This is about consumer knowledge.”

Who do you represent in the lawsuits?

“We represent over a dozen families whose family members have died from kratom exposure. In many instances kratom was the only thing in their system at the time. And at other times, in addition to kratom, there were routine over the counter medicines like antihistamines in their system when they died. We don’t currently have any clients who had other hard drugs or illegal drugs in their system when they died. Instead, their death certificates unequivocally state that it was kratom exposure that was the sole contributing cause of death.”

Have there been any settled kratom cases or cases that have gone to trial?

“No, we are still on the bleeding edge of this. This is something just now percolating into the legal system. We are aware of one or two other cases that have been filed. Those cases m?ay have settled or may have been dismissed, I don’t know. But this is the first time that they are really going to be held to account.”

What’s the profile of the victims in your cases?

“They’re almost exclusively men in their twenties who have no history of drug use. They are individuals who basically thought that they were getting like the next new energy drink or were told by a friend that this is a product that is helpful to you without having to take Advil or aspirin or something like that.”

“It’s individuals who are looking to live a healthier, better life. These are not individuals who are buying kratom with the intent of getting high. Instead they were buying what they thought was a healthy, all natural product.”

And where are you in the litigation?

“Some of the defendants have filed motions to dismiss. Some have not. We are in discovery with the defendants that have not filed motions to dismiss. And we are still briefing out the motions to dismiss on the others.”

Who are the big companies selling kratom.

“OPMS is the largest seller of kratom. Their name was OPM until people started criticizing the company for having an opium leaf on their label and their name was actually OPM. So they added the letter S. In that instance, the message is – this will get you high.”

“In other instances, they are sending the message that this is a natural alternative to Advil or ibuprofen or an all natural alternative to energy drinks.”

You are saying 100 deaths a month. Where does that come from?

“That is coming from independent laboratories that are being retained specifically to investigate this. The CDC compiles data from publicly available sources. And they have a limited data pool compared to what the private organizations have in some instances. If you are not looking for kratom related deaths, you are not going to find them.”

“The reality is that no one knows the death toll of kratom right now, especially when it has an interaction with another drug, which may not have been deadly but for mixing it with kratom. Let’s say you are drinking heavily and taking kratom. Is the cause of death in that instance kratom or the alcohol?” 

You say you don’t want to ban it. You would want the DEA to go back initially and schedule it as a schedule one drug?

“Kratom may have a place in the market. I don’t know what it is. I do know that the organizations that are currently misleading the public about it do not have a place. Anything can be dangerous when concentrated a certain way. It may be the case that kratom has some sort of benefit at very low doses. That should be investigated and studied in the open market and scientific world.”

How many companies are selling kratom?

“It’s probably in the hundreds. OPMS is the biggest and probably the number one seller. After that, it’s Pure Leaf. And then there are a whole bunch of them – Captain Kratom, Chief Kratom, Dr. Kratom – insert your favorite adjective and they are selling it.”

When a family comes to you and their child has died from kratom, do you know where that kratom was purchased from?

“In order to bring the case, we would need to show a chain of causation. We need to know what kratom they consumed. But we also need to know where they bought the kratom, what they knew about the product before they purchased it and what warnings were and were not given for any of this to work.”

“Sometimes people will call us and say – my child has died. But they have nothing. And in those instances there is not a whole lot we can do. Even if you have a death certificate that says – death by kratom exposure, if we don’t know where that exposure came from and where they got the product, it’s not going to work. I’m not able to just name kratom as a defendant.” 

If it’s illegal to import and illegal to grow, how are the companies getting it so that they can market it?

“We are going to find out. What we anticipate is that as to the import ban, they will say – this is a product that is subject to seizure if spotted, but it’s not like we are going to jail if they later find out that we did import it. It’s just that if officials see it, they must seize it. I don’t think that argument has merit, but it will be one of the issues that will be litigated. They have very good lawyers and law firms. And they will make good arguments that we will have to address.”

“They may argue that they have some sort of means to get this into the country legally. But what is clear is that once they are marketing and selling it, the manner in which they are doing it is unlawful.”

There is an AP report in 2016 that says that six states have banned kratom – Wisconsin, Vermont, Tennessee, Indiana, Arkansas and Alabama. 

Any others since then?

“Yes. New Jersey has banned it. Large swaths of Louisiana have banned it. Hawaii has banned it or is in the process of banning it. There are a couple of other states that have some sort of regulation on the books.”

I’m now in  rural West Virginia. Are you saying if I drive to my local gas station, I will find kratom?

“Not only that. I’m saying that if you were to ask five of your closest friends, one of them knows someone who is taking kratom right this second.”

“I’ve been at dinners with other attorneys talking about this case and they are shocked. They don’t like regular energy drinks because they see them as full of toxins. They use kratom because they see it as a natural plant alternative.”

“Most people don’t know this is a drug. They see it as a natural herbal pain medicine. At no point are they thinking – I’m going to take a drug and get high. They then get high and the next thing you know, they are addicted.”

How many cases do you have?

“It’s a growing number. We are investigating forty, but only two have been filed.” 

And the majority of them are young men in their twenties?

“Correct, there are a couple of women. But it’s mostly young men in their twenties.”

What’s the socio-economic profile? Are they middle class young white men?

“Yes, affluent or middle class young white men. That’s the profile. And kratom itself is expensive. It’s fifteen to twenty dollars for a bottle in some instances.”

[For the complete Interview with Matt Wetheringon, see 36 Corporate Crime Reporter 48(12), December 12, 2022, print edition only.]

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