Carol Johnson didn't hold back when she described the store-bought drug that her granddaughter ingested the night she died.
“I think they’re selling death in an envelope,” Johnson said, referring to a drug called kratom.
But the Cowlitz county coroner wasn’t be so sure. A death report issued last month said the role that kratom played in the March 4 death of 31-year-old Leah Nikki Waite is undetermined.
Toxicology tests the coroner conducted found no illegal drugs in Waite's system. He did find large doses of two prescription anti-seizure medications that Waite was taking.
And he found kratom.
Coroner Tim Davidson told The Daily News of Longview that he “couldn’t say definitively that kratom was not a factor in Waite’s death.”
Cowlitz County Sheriff’s investigators were immediately suspicious of the drug when Waite’s body was found at a friend’s house in Longview. Her body was surrounded by several envelopes of kratom that she had apparently purchased at a local head shop.
“It looked like she had been using a lot of it very frequently,” said Cowlitz County Chief Deputy Charlie Rosenzweig. “We clearly were concerned that this drug may have played a role in her death.”
Carol Johnson said the granddaughter she called “Nikki” had been in recovery for two years from a drug addiction. According to Johnson, Nikki told her that kratom –- made from the leaf of a tree in Thailand -– helped her recovery and noted that it is legal and openly for sale in tobacco stores and mini-marts.
While kratom helped Waite for a while, her grandmother didn’t know that she was taking increasing amounts of it.
“That’s how we found out about it. The coroner drove up and knocked on the front door,” said Johnson. “People who just take the word of something that’s slapped in an envelope and stuck on a shelf, I believe it helped contribute to (Leah’s) death,” she said.
The DEA has placed kratom on its list of “drugs and chemicals of concern” because of its potential addictiveness and a rising numbers of hospital visits in the United States possibly tied to its use.
Even though the coroner’s ruling is not definitive, the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office continues to warn the public after a handful of incidents involving citizens acting bizarrely after taking kratom.
“Anytime you’re dealing with something that’s an unknown, it’s high risk,” said Deputy Rosenzweig. “You really don’t know what’s in them. You don’t know the purity of what’s in them and you don’t know the potency of the ingredients in those packets.”
Kratom has its supporters.
In response to questions from KING 5, an organization called Kratom USA said that making a connection between the drug and Waite's death is "lacking in logical reasoning." The group says other, more powerful drugs found in her system are the more likely culprit (see full statement below).
Kratom provides an energy boost in low doses. Higher doses produce the opposite effect and the drug acts like a sedative.
In a story broadcast on January 15, the KING 5 Investigators reported that kratom was the top selling product at Chief Cottonmouth head shop in Puyallup.
“It’s actually doing a good thing,” salesperson Rose Marie Peyton said at the time. “I’ve seen a lot of people come in here and turn around and stop taking pills and start taking Kratom. It actually improved their lives,” she said.
“I wish I would have known then what I know now and that’s the main reason I’m doing this interview is so any other parent or grandparent that (has) children that think this is something that’s a good thing,” said Carol Johnson. “It’s not a good thing.”
Statement from Tanya Marion of Kratom USA
Because kratom is not yet well known in the U.S., it is easy to make ill-informed assumptions about the plant. Kratom has a long term history of safe use in other parts of the world. Our lack of knowledge about this plant should not lead us to villainize it and ignore all of its potential benefits for those who use it as part of their daily health regiment. The Phenazepam found in Leah Nicole Waite's system is not a prescription medication; it is a research chemical that is similar to valium but many times stronger. Its effects on the body, especially in large doses, can last for days making overdose very easy. In direct contrast, kratom is an all-natural plant whose leaves have been used for centuries without consequence. Fingering kratom as the cause of Waite's death when the coroner stated "a perfect storm" of chemicals and physical ailments were to blame seems as lacking in logical reasoning as saying someone who drank a cup of coffee laced with arsenic must have died from consuming coffee.
Additional information about kratom:
Kratom, a close relative of the coffee plant, has been used for hundreds of years where the tree was originally discovered in the jungles of Southeast Asia. The leaves of the kratom tree are used in this region of the world as commonly as coffee and tea are used in Western civilizations. Since kratom's discovery in the early 1800s, there have been no known deaths resulting from the use of all-natural, one hundred percent pure kratom leaves. Kratom has been used for centuries to help those suffering from a multitude of ailments including but not limited to the following: depression, diarrhea, diabetes, allergies, fatigue, sun related sensitivities, diverticulitis, arthritis, high blood pressure, obesity, and perhaps the most well-known -- opiate withdrawal. The list could go on, as studies have suggested that kratom has many disease preventative properties due to the increased antioxidant levels in those who use it.