Controversy, confusion over kratom use in Tennessee

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- Ashley Snipes says a cup of kratom tea can ease her chronic pain enough to get her through the day, allowing her to care for her family and to work on her feet as a pharmacy technician.

"I thought it was amazing. It took away almost all of my pain, but I didn't feel jittery. I didn't feel numb like a lot of the pain medicines can make you feel," said Snipes.

Snipes says she chose to use natural kratom instead of taking up her doctor's offer to send her to a pain clinic for strong painkillers, after a genetic test indicated she has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a group of connective tissue disorders. Snipes had struggled for years with pain and has had eleven surgeries.

The kratom plant is either a helpful way to cope with pain and curb addiction to prescription painkillers, or an illegal substance in Tennessee, depending on who you ask. Dosing for Snipes and others who self-medicate with it depends on information they gather in online kratom groups.

"I think the patients need to have more control over their health care," said Snipes, "and we also need to have alternatives for when the doctors fail us, like having the kratom."

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation says it considers all forms of kratom illegal, even considering natural kratom to be a designer drug. The TBI says its protocol in the lab is not to test for the difference between natural and synthetic forms of kratom. The Tennessee Attorney General's office has been asked to make public a legal opinion about the state's law as it applies to kratom.

On Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018, however, Local 8 News obtained a copy of a legal opinion from the Tennessee Attorney General's office, which said having the kratom plant in its natural form is not against Tennessee law. The letter was in response to a request for legal opinion by State Senator Mark Green.

The State Attorney General clarified that synthetic forms of the substance found in the kratom plant are not legal in Tennessee.

The plant, with origins in Southeast Asia, is listed in a 2013 version of a Tennessee law outlawing other drugs. However, a lawmaker involved in adding the main ingredient, Mitragynine, to that law, said the intent was not to outlaw natural kratom.

"The problem has come with the interpretation of the law, but I'm telling you what legislative intent was. Legislative intent will stand up in court," said former 2nd District Representative Tony Shipley of Kingsport. "We did not outlaw naturally occurring kratom. Having said that, I'm not advocating kratom or not advocating kratom."

Special agent Tony Farmer with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said, "Being that it's an A misdemeanor, it's not something that's gonna be high on our radar, as something we're chasing, but it is enough to send a message that it's illegal, it can't be sold in our state, it can't be possessed in our state."

The TBI said of the 40 kratom samples sent to the organization's lab since 2012, most have been in powdered form, but some have been in liquid form. While you can find kratom-related drinks that look like energy drinks online, Local 8 News searched for these at five Knoxville-area convenience stores and found none of the beverages.

The TBI said its lab protocol is not to decipher whether kratom samples are natural or synthetic, but to simply look for its key ingredient of concern and determine its legality. Some in law enforcement told Local 8 News they think kratom is harmful, while advocates for the substance debate their evidence. Those on all sides of the debate seemed to agree the substance needs more scientific research behind it.

Christopher Miller said he once traveled to Nashville to sell kratom to a person who turned out to be an undercover officer.

"Once I drove down there, undercover cops swarmed me, and I was arrested," he told Local 8 News. "I had a plant, it's organic, it's not a synthetic opioid, it's an organic alkaloid." The case against Miller was retired for a year.

The lawmaker at the center of Tennessee's law against kratom said it's only about the synthetic version, not the plant. "The district attorney declined to prosecute because he didn't think the law applied, and he was correct," Shipley said.

Miller said his lawyer told him the plant he was trying to sell was not illegal. But Miller also said he no longer sells directly in Tennessee, and he moved across the state line into Kentucky.

Miller said he now only sells online, and he even claimed his product isn't meant for people to ingest. "I'm not selling this for human consumption, so I don't, like I said, I sell this for research purposes. So, when it comes to dosing and all that, that's not what I'm selling this for."

Follow our series on Kratom on Local 8 News.