For some people, kratom is a word devoid of context. For others, it’s a miracle. And yet, for all the talk of reform when it comes to cannabis and even some psychedelics, we rarely hear much about this unique substance native to Southeast Asia and legal throughout much of the U.S.
But that certainly isn’t because people don’t use it.
Often found nestled beside quasi-novelty drugs like Salvia divinorum at local head shops, kratom is actually valued by many as far more than a way to cop a quick buzz. Known to possess both calming and stimulating properties based on one’s dosage, it’s the leaves of kratom trees (a tropical evergreen in the coffee family) that deliver the goods.
Consumed by either chewing fresh leaves or taking them in a powdered form, the appeal of kratom ranges from its potential as a replacement for caffeine to its powers as a mildly euphoric sedative. It has even been suggested that kratom may be a possible solution in efforts to reduce opioid dependency.
As a result, the number of kratom users in the U.S. alone continues to skyrocket. According to Mac Haddow, Senior Fellow on Public Policy for the American Kratom Association, estimates of 5 million domestic users in 2016 have now been replaced by more recent research that pegs the total number of regular U.S. kratom users at somewhere between 11 and 16 million.
Bloom & Oil will feature a conversation with Haddow on Thursday, but first, we decided to steep ourselves in the world of Top Tree Herbs co-founder Sam Weber.
Following a career in cannabis, Weber opted to take a risk by bringing a new product to U.S. consumers: prepacked kratom tea bags. Why tea?
Weber told us all about in addition to giving a detailed overview of kratom’s current legal standing, why so many consumers are using it today, and what Top Tree is doing to deal with the dreaded issue of kratom’s not-so-pleasant flavor.
How did Top Tree Herbs get started?
As a longtime kratom user, I would always have to go buy it at these headshops where it had really bad branding with shiny wrappers. It just does not match the branding you’d expect for products that many people use for the reasons that they do. Fast-forward from there, and I’ve begun to realize that there’s a much bigger market for kratom than I knew about. It’s a $2 billion market with 5 to 15 million users in the U.S.
Then the question was: what product can we make? We knew that we want to have something that’s safe, that’s better branded, and something positioned a little bit more in line with how people use the product. We looked at the largest kratom survey ever done, which covered 10,000 people in the United States. In that survey, about a quarter of them said that they brew tea, which was surprising to me.
I’d bought kratom for years and years but I’d only ever seen it as a powder. I knew we needed to do some research and, when we looked at a list of the traditional uses of kratom, we learned that it has actually been used for hundreds and hundreds of years as a tea or chewed as fresh leaves. Basically, the whole powder movement is a fundamentally American change. It’s largely based in economic reasons: shipping tea materials takes up a lot of room but they ship three times as much product if its processed into micronized powder. But overall, there are millions of people brewing kratom tea and it’s been used for hundreds of years as a tea.
The final piece of the puzzle was that we looked at what people were selling — we looked at all of the vendors — and no one had tea products. It was to the point where companies had tabs labeled ‘Tea’ but there was no ready-to-brew tea bags or anything like that. It was a very niche concept. When we launched a year ago, I can tell you that I worried I was making a crazy decision. Am I crazy for putting our life savings into this business? We knew there were millions of people doing this and that there were no other products like it, so we just hoped that people would like it.
But then we started to get feedback and it’s just been amazing to hear. It’s really, truly been across-the-board great feedback.
Why are people so enthusiastic about getting access to kratom in tea bags?
For many people, it’s about the convenience. There are people who use it at work, so they don’t want to have to take pills but they can certainly drink a tea. But most importantly, it’s the difference in effects.
With kratom, you’re trying to get alkaloids, which like less than 1% of what’s in the powder you’re eating. What you’re mostly eating is a lot of insoluble plant material to get these alkaloids when you could just do an extraction — and that’s what tea is. That’s actually the history of tea. It was discovered 6000 years ago but for the first 4500 years, it was actually just mixed with grains and eaten. Then, in China, they discovered that you can actually use hot water and create an extraction. Then the Emperor of China banned eating tea and brewing tea was born.
For us, it almost feels like we’re trying to reinsert what we already learned thousands of years ago. 30% of kratom users in the United States have experienced indigestion or other stomach problems at some point, for instance, but those largely go away with tea.
What does Top Tree Herbs have going on right now?
We’re working on a launch with Hamilton Morris. Our co-founder was the head producer of that show and now we’re actually doing some work with Hamilton. We’re releasing a video on his YouTube channel featuring my co-founder with Hamilton and one of the lead researchers in the country, Dr. Oliver Grundmann. He’s the one who did that 10,000-person study I mentioned. It’s very exciting.
My co-founder also has one of the only fresh kratom leaf greenhouses in the country. We have 70 three-year-old trees, which are going through testing right now to see how the alkaloids have changed throughout the season. My co-founder went down and visited one of the top labs in the country, because we’re going to pair the survey with the most sophisticated alkaloid test ever done on all of the products, with the idea being to figure out what is actually being extracted in tea: what alkaloids are you getting? Then, we can start to amass some of the data that every other industry would get through FDA-approved studies but the FDA won’t allow through anything at the human consumption level for kratom. The researchers’ hands are tied.
For us, it was a great opportunity, because we’re the only company focused on tea, specifically, meaning our customers know how much kratom they’re taking through the tea bags. Oliver Grundmann saw this a very unique opportunity to start getting some data and hopefully compare the kratom tea feedback to the larger survey. Now we can actually start amassing some data that we can then take to regulators.
Right, because in a sense, in order to be kratom company right now, you both have to make a product but also simultaneously be constantly defend your right to exist. Is that fair to say?
Caffeine can become a stimulant or a poison depending on how much you use, right? Well, we’ve always wanted to have some data around how much people are using kratom because even though this is a $2 billion market, there’s a lot of competition within the industry, and we’re not even selling powder! We’re just a small team with a few people but we are bringing Hamilton into this space.
We’re both Columbia grads. [Dr.] Carl Hart retweeted us yesterday. He’s one of our friends. I think that they see that we’re people who are trying to create a new normal, which is something that regulators feel more comfortable approving. Plus, being a small team with a very science-focused, consumer-focused brand, we don’t have the needs or the overhead of these big companies.
We’re not importing. We’re not selling to a bunch of head shops. For us, it’s more about trying to figure out how to make kratom into a product that people would expect in modern-day times.
Not importing really does set what you apart from your competition.
Yeah, absolutely. Originally, we thought we were going to import too. We didn’t even start by creating tea bags — we started by looking at why there was a hole in the market. As part of that analysis, we saw that we could do everything for a half or even a quarter of the cost if we imported but, for starters, we don’t have the facilities to do the quality standards that we’d need to do for this. This is a multi-million-dollar investment, so if you’re going to be taking this unknown, imported leaf, and then selling it — especially when you know how people are using it… and then there’s the price.
One of the other things we saw was that there’s not a lot of fair labor protections for these Indonesian farmers. Essentially, when a lot of these companies don’t pay much to their farmers, the farmers have an incentive to just to add other leaves and stuff in. That’s why there’s a lot of bad kratom out there — because it’s not all even kratom, right? Plus, there’s a huge level of investment both in establishing relationships in Indonesia and then to ensure it’s getting processed correctly when it enters the United States. Those two things were barriers.
The final piece of this was that everyone’s already doing it. It’s almost like they’ve turned importing kratom into this commodity business, which is an unbelievable amount of headache when everyone’s doing it. Instead, what we’ve decided to do was to create a premium category. Part of our brand partnership is with this company in Colorado called Laughing Lion Herbs. We’re partnering with them because we can’t sell in Denver because of a ban there on the consumption of kratom, so we sell to people through their store.
Talking to them, there’s so much headache with getting facilities that will let you use kratom, importing it, and just to get it into the U.S. and get it clean, tested, and into a product that can go on a shelf? It leaves no time for developing world-class consumer products. I have no doubt that most of these other companies would be doing tea bags if they had the bandwidth to do tea bags but they’re all busy worrying about the products being seized at the border.
We looked at the whole market and it just seemed like that’s what everyone was doing. They were all saying, ‘Hey, we import. We know our farmers. We have this cheap price.’ But within all of that, no one was looking around and saying, ‘If there are thousands of lawyers who use kratom every day, what products are they buying? Soccer moms: what products are they buying?’ The answer is that product just didn’t really exist yet.
What was your R&D process like?
At first, it was just a simple tea bag. We got great feedback about that but a lot of people mentioned that it was really, really bitter. It was like 50-50: half of them loved the natural flavor but the other half were like, ‘Hell no! What did you just sell me?!’
To overcome that, we flavored the tea with all-natural organic flavors and it made a huge difference in the flavor profile. Our last iteration, which we just launched, is a partnership with world-class tea sommeliers to design custom blends which are all 50% kratom, at least, but it’s also mixed with other herbs.
It touches on this whole functional tea movement. I really was not a big tea drinker before starting the company, but being a researcher, I began drinking tons of tea every day and also reading all of these books. It’s just so interesting how many health benefits can be acquired through tea. It was nature’s pharmacy before the multivitamin
How do you handle folks who approach kratom with skepticism or outright concern?
The way we explain it is that your intuition and your instincts are correct: this is a new thing. We’re talking about new herbs. What we try to do is to reframe things by helping people realize that kratom is actually the old way.
People have been using kratom for pain relief and energy for hundreds and hundreds of years. Thousands of people have used it daily for hundreds of years. This is an old, well-understood substance. Whereas, if you wake up with knee pain — and this is not like a medical claim — and you’re relying on ibuprofen or Tylenol every day, you might not realize it, but you’re actually taking the new stuff. And the fact is there are a lot of people who die every year from new stuff.
It’s not to say that kratom is some magic thing or anything but I do like to help people reframe their understanding by suggesting that a natural, well-established practice in human society shouldn’t be the thing that scares you. It’s the same way where if someone’s depressed and they go right for Xanax without looking at their diet or or health.
The other point is about the efficacy case and that’s where we say ‘it’s all in the brew.’ People have lost the art of medicinal plant medicine. Back in the 1920s, pharmacies were based on herbs. Pharmacists would calculate how much of a certain active ingredient a patient should get and they would make you your tonic. That’s how it worked. All the way up into the 1980s, most pharmaceuticals were based off of natural compounds.
Fast forward to today and the whole field of herbal medicine making is almost lost in the West. For that reason, people don’t know how to do things like brew ‘medicinal’ tea. If they do brew kratom incorrectly, you’re going to get a bitter drink that doesn’t do anything, which is a horrible experience.
We also try to tell people that you will know when you feel it. This is not CBD. It’s not a thing where you take it for a month and then placebo yourself into feeling it. Literally, if you don’t feel it, then you’re not doing it correctly. A lot of people don’t like the effect and we’re not prophets for it but we are saying that this is not like fish oil. If you brew it correctly, you will feel it. You might not like the effects, which means it’s not for you. However, if you drink four cups of coffee a day, it’s worth thinking about trying.
How big do you think kratom could get if federal legal protections etc. are put in place?
I hesitate to even say this, but CBD is creating the botanical wedge that kratom is going to fill. It doesn’t get you high in the sense that you could still drive a truck on it. I’m not saying this what the future will look like, but with rebranding and legal protections and education, I don’t see why there couldn’t be a Starbucks of kratom tea someday.
Check back on Thursday for the second part of our kratom series, featuring Mac Haddow of the American Kratom Association!