CHEROKEE COUNTY, Ga. - If you're worried about the opioid crisis - you'll want to listen up. The FDA claims there is an over-the-counter herb out there that works just like an opioid. And they say it's killing people. But the pushback from folks who use this herb and its supporters has been fierce.
It's called Kratom. And it's a plant. And just like a lot of herbal supplements you buy, it's sold over the counter. No prescription. Proponents will tell you that many people use it as a natural way manage chronic pain, among other things. The government, on the other hand, says it's dangerous - even deadly.
Robert Grove's face looks pained when he talks about his son John who died from a kratom overdose.
"He was just lovable. Lovable. Everybody loved John," he said. His son, he says, struggled with drugs - steroids, opioids, all sorts of things.
"The year leading up to his death he was getting himself straightened out."
John had just finished a stint in Cherokee Country drug court. But, just a few months later he was dead. His dad said he'd been using drugs again, and he had added in something new - mytragyna speciosa, more commonly known as kratom.
Kratom is a plant from southeast Asia. It's used in teas or ground up as a powder for capsules. People use it for depression, fatigue, and pain. You can buy it online or in what is called smoke shops.
In the Tampa area, kratom tea can be found on tap at some shops.
"It has different effects on people. It can make them feel better, makes them relaxed," said Jose Silveira of Johnny Vapors Vape Kava & Kratom Bar.
But the FDA says, no, it's more than that. It can be deadly. Last month the FDA declared kratom an "opioid" with "similar addictive effects." But, again, it's perfectly legal to buy and use.
And 34-year-old John Grove bought it and used it. He died just more than a year ago. His death certificate says of "acute mitragynine intoxication" - a kratom overdose.
Dr. Gaylord Lopez, director of Georgia Poison Center, says that nationally poison control centers have seen calls about kratom spike with complaints of vomiting, irritability, some cases seizures.
"Between 2010 and 2015, reported to poison centers were about 500, 600 cases of kratom. In 2016 alone, 480," he told me.
In 2016, the GBI logged five deaths it blames on kratom. Numbers are still coming in, but last year, the state saw 15 kratom-related deaths.
"Once you start using you start to become dependent. Once you become dependent you become tolerant of those effects. Tolerance becomes an addiction," Dr. Lopez warned.
But here's where the pushback comes in. The American Kratom Association says kratom is the answer to the opioid crisis, not another a problem. It helps users ween off of the prescription drugs. Supporters of kratom say this herb is a godsend for people with chronic pain who don't want take prescription drugs like oxycodone or codeine.
Heather Kelly tells Fox she uses it to combat pain from Crohn's disease.
"I went from being down for 17-20 days a month to maybe having one or two bad days a month where I can control the pain and be a functional member of society. I could actually work and get off of FMLA, get off of having to call out sick, ya know, I could just function," she said.
The American Kratom Association even pushes back saying the FDA has "zero evidence" that any deaths are kratom-related. One death, the groups says, from suicide was tagged as kratom-related because there was a lot of it in the victim's system.
So the Fox 5 I-Team looked at autopsy reports from all 20 kratom deaths in Georgia. In most of them, a host of drugs were found. This man used kratom but he also had methamphetamine and hydrocodone in his system. In three of the deaths, including John Grove's, kratom was the only substance found.
But here's where everyone agrees -- there should be some regulation.
"I don't want to say that is was a bad product, this kratom, it could help people. But, it really needs to be studied and looked at," Robert Grove said.
Dr. Lopez believes kratom shouldn't be sold over-the-counter but isn't sure it needs a prescription either.
"It may be classified in the middle, maybe in pharmacy, they sell it behind the counter."
The American Kratom Association supports some manufacturing standards "to ensure product safety and purity."
Meantime, no one wants to see children buying kratom.
"You could go down the street to the smoke shops, to the head shops, and go to the Internet and parents need to be aware," said Dr. Lopez.