Kratom and kava are becoming more popular in Colorado as the state’s psychedelic market continues to grow. But questions remain about what these substances do, their potential health benefits, and their legal status. 

To help unwind some of the mysteries surrounding the substances, The Psychedelic Club of Denver hosted an informational discussion on July 19 at the Mercury Cafe. Deonna Lupola, a former registered nurse who co-owns a kava bar called The Karma House in Lakewood, shared her experiences with kava and kratom, and discussed a few issues surrounding the substances. 

Kratom is like coffee that can help with opioid withdrawal

Kratom is a controversial substance that is similar to coffee and is produced in Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea. Workers in these countries often chew kratom leaves to reduce pain and hunger, or to get a little pick-me-up in the afternoon. There are more than 50 strains of kratom that are broken down by three colors — red, yellow, and white — each of which has its own effect. In the U.S., kratom can be bought at some head shops and even gas stations, but information about uses and dosages can be scarce.  

Generally speaking, the American Kratom Association states, red kratom has higher amounts of sedative and pain-relieving properties. Yellow kratom is often used to boost an individual’s mood, and white kratom is used to reduce stress or anxiety. 

States have enacted more regulations surrounding kratom than they have for kava, Lupola said, which can make purchasing the substance difficult in some cases. For example, kratom is illegal in Denver but can be purchased in many other counties in Colorado. Other states like Florida, Illinois, and Mississippi have similar restrictions on the substance while places like Alabama and Rhode Island have made kratom illegal. 

Lupola said she discovered kratom after entering a treatment program for a stress-related condition during her time as an ICU nurse. Lupola said the program required her to pay $23,000 to enter, spend 30 days in the program, and put a scarlet letter on her nursing license. She said this experience taught her about how burdensome it can be for some people to get the help they need.

“Not everyone can drop their life for 30 days and get help,” Lupola said. “That’s why alternative substances like kratom are so powerful.” 

However, not everyone is sold on kratom’s prowess. For example, the Food and Drug Administration has warned consumers that kratom has addictive properties similar to the opioids that it can help treat. 

Meanwhile, a 2022 study by the National Institute of Health found that the plant can also cause gastrointestinal, neurological, and cardiovascular issues in people who regularly ingest it. 

Kava is a “social lubricant” that has some noteworthy drawbacks

Kava, on the other hand, is a root that is native to the western Pacific islands like Samoa and Fiji. It has been used by tribal communities as a medical treatment and religious ceremonies for centuries, Lupola said. The plant has also been used to welcome foreign dignitaries like Queen Elizabeth II, who supposedly participated in a kava ceremony while visiting Fiji in 1953 although the Royal Collection Trust denies it

Kava is traditionally drunk out of a Tanoa bowl, which is often made out of the teak or vesi woods that are commonly found in Fiji or Samoa, and the tea has some sedative, euphoriant, and psychotropic properties. Studies have shown that the drink can help people ditch alcohol dependence, although there are some concerns about its impact on the body. 

The substance is legal to buy and sell in all 50 states and exists in a largely unregulated space, Lupola said. There are a few kava bars in the metro area like Kavasutra on East Colfax in Denver, That’s Kava on Broadway in Englewood, and The Karma House on Garrison Street in Lakewood. 

Lupola said she stumbled upon kava after a night out on the town in Florida, which has one of the highest concentrations of kava bars in the U.S. She said she spoke with the bartender for a little while and decided to come back to try it the next day when she sobered up. After trying kava, Lupola said she felt the same “social lubrication” that alcohol can create. But it also made her want to stop drinking alcohol over time.  

Now, she describes herself as “walking proof” of the plant’s powers to help people leave alcohol behind. 

“The best benefit of kava is the community,” Lupola said. “Going to a kava bar is kind of like going to a regular bar but without all of the alcohol and stupidity.” 

Outside of the benefits, Lupola also cautioned that excessive kava use can have side effects. One of the more common side effects is nausea because the plant is a natural diuretic, Lupola said. Some studies have also shown that kava can also cause liver damage, including cirrhosis of the liver.