Kava bar kratom: Did addiction to herb kill young man?

2:00 p.m Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014 Politics

On the afternoon of July 16, 20-year-old Ian Mautner drove his Isuzu Trooper to a bridge above Interstate 95 in Boynton Beach. Witnesses told police he parked the car, walked across the street, removed his sandals and dived off the 23rd Avenue overpass into the highway’s southbound lanes.

The medical examiner hasn’t determined a cause of death yet, but Linda Mautner said she is convinced that an addiction to kratom is what killed her son.

Kratom — a psychoactive herb said to be addictive because of opium-like effects — is regulated in many countries of Asia and Europe, but widely available in much of the United States.

In Palm Beach County, you can get it from gas stations that sell packets of the ground-up herb or at trendy kava bars that serve it in chilled tea drinks.

Linda Mautner is on a mission to change that, and she might soon get help from the Palm Beach County Commission. On Tuesday, commissioners will consider whether to draft a local law banning the substance.

“I’m on a crusade for my son,’’ she said. “I don’t want my son to die in vain and I don’t want parents to ever, ever have to go through this and lose their child, their only child, like I did.’’

Ian Mautner, who graduated from Boca Raton High School with honors in 2012, battled his kratom addiction since the end of his junior year in 2011, his mother said.

Linda Mautner said her son told her he discovered kratom after first trying kava – a plant that produces a mild euphoria — at a kava bar in Delray Beach.

“He told me he knew he arrived at a perfect high,’’ said Linda, who works as a nurse. “He’d tell me, ‘It’s harmless, mom. It’s an herb. It’s not like I’m going to a bar to drink alcohol.’ Because this was legal and being sold at a place where people his age could go and get it, he thought it was harmless.’’

Linda Mautner said she has been a recovering alcoholic for 20 years. She said she was alarmed by her son’s initial enthusiasm for kratom because she knew the “addiction gene” ran in her family.

In an effort to ease her concerns, Linda Mautner said she and her husband accompanied her son to a kava bar one day in 2011. “They served it these half-coconut shells. It cost $10. I thought it tasted horrible. I couldn’t finish it, so (Ian) drank the rest of it,’’ she said.

Kratom is made from the leaf of a tree that is in the same family as the coffee tree. It is native to Southeast Asia, where it has been used as an herbal drug that can produce opium-like effects, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

It is controlled in Thailand, Malaysia and Myanmar, where it is indigenous. And several European countries have passed laws regulating it.

Although it is not a scheduled drug in the United States, kratom is on a DEA watch list because the agency says it can be addictive and is primarily a stimulant. It is banned by the U.S. Army and Navy. Several states have taken measures to control or ban the substance and its derivatives.

While Florida lawmakers have not passed any laws regulating kratom, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is aware of substance’s popularity and is monitoring it, a spokesman said.

The addiction begins

At first, Ian Mautner would reason with his mother that kratom was harmless. He told her that he consumed it in kava bars where customers included students as well as an older crowd, lawyers and business people.

But by 2013, Linda was noticing changes in her son’s behavior. Ian eventually admitted he was addicted to kratom. If he wasn’t drinking it at kava bars, she said, he would dump packets of the ground herb powder into his mouth and chase it down with water.

“It was very much like heroin for him. It was a $60-a-day habit at the end of his senior year,’’ she said. “He called it his ‘devil drug’ because he was addicted to it. He’d say, ‘Mom, it’s like the devil.’’’

Mautner’s addiction alarmed his closest friends. “He went into it so innocently. It’s put out there like a health thing,” said Alexa Smith, 19, of Delray Beach. “He invited all of us to try it with him because he wanted people to know how harmless it was. Once he realized it’s addictive, he stopped inviting us.”

Ian Mautner wound up seeking treatment in rehab centers in September 2013 and again in Januaryafter he initially resisted her efforts to get him into The Hanley Center, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in West Palm Beach.

The Hanley Center declined to comment for this story, but Kevin Bandy, the director of outpatient services at the Hanley Center, told The Palm Beach Post in 2012 that kratom “is another drug out there that’s being called not a drug. That’s so hard to deal with.”

No deaths in Florida

No deaths have been connected to kratom in Florida, according to the Florida Poison Information Center, which describes kratom as a “psychoactive plant’’ and not a synthetic drug.

The center received 14 calls related to kratom in the last 2½ years – four in 2012, six in 2013 and four so far in 2014. Two cases in that period came from Palm Beach County, one in 2012 and one this year.

Callers reported symptoms including seizures, abdominal pain and agitation, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and high blood pressure.

But the center’s statistics do not necessarily measure a product’s use because “most users never place a call to the center even if they experience negative effects,’’ said Wendy Stephan, the center’s health education coordinator.

At Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center, three patients have been treated this summer after telling doctors they consumed kratom, said emergency room director Scott McFarland. He couldn’t recall any kratom cases in previous years.

McFarland said patients told doctors they took kratom at a kava bar. “They use it as an alternative to oxycontin or heroin. They don’t get the same kind of buzz, so they take a whole lot more of it. It’s dangerous because you can’t really achieve the same effect,’’ he said.

“Can you call it an epidemic? No. But certainly the word is on the street. That’s how everything spreads,’’ he said.

After she discovered Ian’s addiction in 2013, Linda started calling Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office for help. Asked to comment last week about Linda Mautner’s efforts, a spokesman for Bondi said in a statement: “We are aware of the situation in South Florida and are working with FDLE to monitor Kratom.”

Sarasota County is the only Florida county to ban kratom in all forms. Palm Beach County could soon follow.

At Linda Mautner’s request, county Mayor Priscilla Taylor and Commissioner Steven Abrams said they will ask county staff Tuesday to look into whether the county can regulate or ban kratom.

County commissioners could add kratom to a 2012 county law banning the sale of synthetic drugs used by people to get high such as synthetic marijuana, incense and “bath salts.”

Other options include an ordinance similar to the measure adopted by Sarasota County, which regulates the packaging and labeling of substances that mimic controlled substances.

“It’s basically a narcotic that is legally available and, if abused, can lead to these unfortunate endings. We want to see if we can take some action,’’ said Abrams, who has already asked the county attorney’s office to start researching the issue.

When Mautner jumped off the bridge July 16, it made news because his suicide caused traffic backups on I-95 as police recovered his body from the southbound lanes.

Boynton Beach police would not comment on his case because it’s still under investigation. Although there has been no official connection between kratom and Mautner’s death, Linda Mautner said police found six packets of kratom in her son’s car, including two unopened packets.

Asked about the possibility that Ian might have been using other drugs that might have contributed to his death, Mautner said her son always told her he was not.

In her grief, Linda Mautner ramped up her efforts to ban kratom, prompting friends and neighbors to send emails and letters to local lawmakers.

“His death struck a chord in the community,’’ Abrams said. “The saying goes, a tragedy is just a tragedy unless something good comes out it. We’ll try to make sure these abuses don’t occur.’’

Linda Mautner is not the only parent trying to ban kratom. West Palm Beach attorney Gary Russo said he is working with about 28 other people, mainly parents, to petition state lawmakers to enact protections against kratom.

“Now it’s not regulated and the state isn’t doing anything,’’ Russo said. “Unfortunately it takes a horrible tragedy like Ian Mautner and now all of a sudden people are starting to take notice, and it shouldn’t be that way.’’

Russo represented a Jupiter couple who filed a lawsuit last fall against the Purple Lotus Kava Bar in West Palm Beach, claiming they unwittingly became addicted to kratom.

Russo said his clients, who were seeking to be reimbursed for thousands of dollars they spent on doctors and medication to break the habit, dropped the lawsuit in April.

Remembering Ian

In the days after his death, Ian Mautner was remembered at a memorial service attended by 500 people and at a “paddle out” service off Delray Beach where more than 100 friends glided in waves on surf boards.

He loved to surf, travel and play the piano. He attended Florida State and Florida Atlantic universities before embarking on a career as a yoga instructor.

“He was a beautiful person. He was sensitive. He was loving. He had a gentle spirit,” his mother said. “All of this disappeared with the kratom.”

A friend brought a giant framed portrait of Mautner’s smiling face to the memorial service. Afterwards, Linda Mautner took it home.

Now the 3-foot blow-up of her son’s happy face, with his sandy-blond surfer’s hair and blue eyes lit up, leans against her living room wall.

She said she often sits on the couch and prays while looking at it.

“I talk to him every day,’’ she says. “I ask him to give me strength to do this.’’

Still struggling to come to terms with her son’s death, she wonders if his tragedy wasn’t needed to spark change to help others.

“This is going to be an epidemic with our young people. Maybe it took a powerful person like him to impact the community,” she said.

“I feel him nearby. I know he’s keeping me going with this and he wants to help. I can hear him tell me, ‘Just do it, Mom.’’’

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