TOWN OF LEE — Zoey Krupkowski isn’t just the owner and operator of one of the only kratom stores in Oneida County, she’s also a customer.
“It helps me so much. And it helps a lot of other people. I can take this and work all day,” Krupkowski said during a recent interview at Iron Lungs, her vape and kratom shop on Turin Road.
“It just stops your pain. It doesn’t make you feel super good, nothing. It just stops everything. It makes you feel normal.”
Kratom is an herbal drug from Southeast Asian that users like Krupkowski claim is both a non-addictive painkiller and a help with opioid withdrawal symptoms. Though it’s been used for years throughout the country and the world, kratom is only now starting to pop up in the Rome area, most notably at Iron Lungs.
Krupkowski said she has been using kratom daily for more than a year after her back was injured during the birth of her daughter.
“I was lying in bed all the time. It was awful. I felt like I was going down a deep, deep hole,” she said of the pain. “Kratom kind of just uplifts your energy and makes you feel better.”
The federal Food and Drug Administration has issued warnings that there is no scientific proof that kratom has any medicinal value. The FDA warned that kratom affects the same opioid brain receptors as morphine, and could expose users to to addiction, abuse and dependence.
“There is no FDA-approved uses for kratom, and the agency has received concerning reports about the safety of kratom,” according to a warning at www.FDA.gov.
“FDA is actively evaluating all available scientific information on the issue and continues to warn consumers not to use any products labeled as containing the botanical substance kratom.”
Likewise, the product has drawn the attention of some community members who question the product’s legality, citing, among other things, an April report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which looked at more than 27,000 reported overdose deaths from 2016 to 2017 and discovered that 91 of those deaths were attributed to kratom, though often mixed with other drugs like heroin and fentanyl. The report indicated that seven of those deaths were attributed to only kratom, though additional substances could not be ruled out.
“It is an unregulated substance,” warned Rome Police Lt. James P. Boyer. ”It is not illegal.”
Kratom is free to buy, sell and use in New York State, though six other states, including Rhode Island and Vermont, have been putting bans on kratom.
Both Boyer and the Oneida County Sheriff’s Office said they have not been called to investigate any case of kratom use or kratom danger.
“We will take our direction from the FDA and any legislation that will come” on the state or federal level, Boyer said.
Krupkowski is quick to deny the federal warnings.
“It’s not dangerous,” she said. “You can’t overdose on it. You can’t take too much.”
The American Kratom Association says on their website that they support the regulation of kratom to keep it safe. They say there could be upwards of 15 million kratom users in the U.S.
“Kratom is a natural analgesic which has been used for hundreds of years to safely alleviate pain, combat fatigue and help with the effects of anxiety and depression,” the AKA website states. “Unfortunately, the spread of misinformation, both scientific and anecdotal, about kratom has created a challenging regulatory environment.”
Krupkowski said she sells several strains of the kratom in powder form, which is sold in a pill. She said she gets her supply from a distributor in Buffalo, and she always checks batch numbers and lab testing results on incoming shipments. Krupkowski said her customers are usually older people seeking pain relief, with the youngest customers in their mid-30s.
”It’s not popular with younger teens, surprisingly enough,” she said, adding that she doesn’t sell any of her products to children under the age of 18.
“It doesn’t get them that high they’re looking for it. It doesn’t get you high at all.”
Krupkowski said she takes about 10 pills in the morning to help with her own “unbearable” back pain due to the problem with the epidural when she gave birth to her daughter in November 2017. She said doctors prescribed her opioid painkillers, which have been noted by law enforcement as one of the leading factors in the opioid epidemic across the country.
“I prefer taking kratom because it’s all-natural and you don’t get addicted to it, and there’s no chance of overdosing — as opposed to opiates,” she said.
It was the opioid crisis that brought Krupkowski to Central New York three years ago. Originally from Virginia, she said the drug epidemic is “out of control” in her home state, and it claimed the lives of both her father and best friend. She decided she needed to escape the epidemic before it claimed her as well.
Moving to Westernville, Krupkowski said she got a job at Luigi’s pizza parlor in Rome, where she fell in love and started a family with the owner’s son. Husband and wife eventually came to own the Luigi’s location on Turin Road in Lee, and she said they had an empty storefront in the building that they wanted to turn into some kind of shop.
By that point, she said she was already using kratom to help with her back pain. And she’d used it some in Virginia to treat her anxiety and depression.
“I feel like people around here don’t know about kratom, and it would help them a lot. Some people don’t want to be on opiates. And some people are going through withdrawal and don’t know what to do,” Krupkowski stated.
”I wanted to spread the knowledge.”
Krupkowski said her husband needed convincing, but once they started getting regular customers who praised how kratom was helping them with their pain or their withdrawals symptoms, he came around.
”I take kratom and it helps me enough to where I personally feel OK. I feel better than if I was on medicine. I’m not trying to push this on anybody, but i try to recommend it to everybody because it has so helped me and changed my life so much that I feel like it would help a lot of others,” Krupkowski said.
She added that she knows a kratom ban could come to New York State, and she opposes such a ban.
“It helps me so much, and it helps a lot of other people,” she said.”I know a lot of people who have gotten off of heroin because they can take this. It would be wrong for them to ban it because there are so many positive outcomes, and how many people it helps.”