Edmonton

Edmonton kratom retailer frustrated by 'aggressive' Health Canada raids

Health Canada's crackdown on a controversial supplement has put two Edmonton stores in its crosshairs.

Used to treat pain or anxiety, herb can be an inexpensive way to ease opiate withdrawal, researchers say

Dan Barsotti's two Edmonton-based stores were targeted in a Health Canada raid in May. (CBC)

Health Canada's crackdown on a controversial supplement has put two Edmonton stores in its crosshairs. 

Health Canada raided Dan Barsotti's two "cannabis-lifestyle" stores last month, seizing $58,000 worth of kratom products.

"We would expect more understanding [around] how we can work together with Health Canada to make it a safe and accessible alternative," Barsotti said.

"To simply come in and seize without informing, without trying to provide any perspective as to why, we felt was very aggressive.

Kratom is a plant native to southeast Asia. The herb is traditionally consumed by chewing on the leaves, but can also be ingested as a capsule or powder or as a tea.
Kratom, a coffee-like plant native to southeast Asia which has similar properties to heroin and morphine is readily available in Canada. (Earth Kratom)

Though it's in the same family as coffee, kratom's active chemical properties — mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine — mimic morphine and heroin, creating euphoria and providing pain relief.

However, Health Canada said the herb can have dangerous side effects including nausea, vomiting, seizures and liver toxicity, with the potential for "abuse and dependence."

Health Canada raided Barsotti's stores, Saj at 11839 St. Albert Trail and Jupiter at 12841 97th St., on May 4, one of several raids on retailers across the country.

'It's a catch 22'

While it's not illegal to possess kratom for personal consumption, Health Canada does not permit the sale of any health product containing the herb, such as tea or capsules.

Online retailers market the plant as incense or an ingredient for aromatherapy.

Barsotti said the current regulations are not only leaving retailers in limbo, they ignore the medical needs of Canadians who have come rely on kratom's medicinal properties.

"It's a catch-22," Barsotti said. "They're asking you to acquire a health number, but there's no number to acquire.

"Without going through a heavy full regulatory process, and bringing kratom into the limelight, there's no way to legally sell kratom."

Barsotti said kratom has helped many of his customers find relief from pain without the use of opioids, he said.

"We've seen a tremendous amount of anxiety, a tremendous amount of disappointment," Barsotti said. "We've seen a lot of people relapse to traditional medical uses and we're now starting to see the effects of those heavier medications.

"So for us, it's not about the seizure itself. It's unfortunate that the approach didn't have more compassion."

'Fear-mongering' 

Paula Brown, president of the Natural Health Products Research Society of Canada and the Canada Research Chair in Phytoanalytics questions the current regulations around kratom.

I think it would be irresponsible to make blanket statements about a herb that has been used traditionally for centuries.-Paula Brown

Brown said she has asked Health Canada repeatedly to back up its claims against kratom, but never received a response.

"I don't think you should make statements you can't substantiate," said Brown, who serves as an adjunct professor with the Department of Biology at University of British Columbia.

"I think it would be irresponsible to make blanket statements about a herb that has been used traditionally for centuries."

While some use kratom to treat pain or anxiety, others turn to the herb as an inexpensive and accessible way to ease opiate withdrawal, said Zach Walsh, an associate professor in the UBC Department of Psychology and co-director for the Centre for the Advancement of Psychological Science and Law.

"I don't think it's appropriate to be fear-mongering or to make any moves that are going to limit people's ability to study the drug," Walsh said.

"We want to study it. We want to see how that works, and what are potential risks.

"But if we're going to take it away in middle of opioid epidemic that seems like a terrible mistake."