An Atmore woman was released from jail nearly nine months after being arrested with Kratom in Alabama. Since the arrest, supporters nationwide have raised thousands of dollars to help pay her bail.
Shaina Megan Brown, 34, of Atmore, is charged with trafficking synthetic drugs, a Class A felony, which could mean life in prison.
According to court documents, Brown was arrested at 10:52 a.m. on March 31 by Flomaton Police. Escambia County Sheriff's deputies also responded. Brown was found to be in possession of Kratom, which is illegal in Alabama and only five other states. She had 250 grams of the drug, which is enough to be considered trafficking.
Kratom is a drug derived from a tree in southeast Asia. The leaves from the tree have been used historically to treat many ailments but, in recent years, have become helpful for those dealing with opioid withdrawals.
There are two alkaloids in the leaves – Mitragynine and Hydromitragynine – which connect to brain receptors sparking opioid-like responses. Kratom can be in pill or injection form, smoked, snorted or brewed into tea.
Kratom was made illegal in Alabama in 2016 when then-Gov. Robert Bentley signed a bill amending the code of Alabama to add Kratom to the list of controlled substances.
Now Brown and her supporters are taking to the internet to fight for a change to allow for a substance they believe saves lives. At the same time, there are others who say Kratom is very dangerous and can lead to dependency and even death.
Still, many said a $1 million bond was excessive for the 250 grams of Kratom Brown was accused of having.
Escambia County District Attorney Stephen Billy told 1819 News the reason Brown's bond was set so high to begin with was likely because she had a trafficking charge. The bond will often start at $1 million in trafficking cases, and then judges hear arguments to reduce bond during hearings. That is exactly what happened in Brown's case, and she was eventually given a $75,000 bond months after her arrest.
Billy said some people think that it's OK just because they bought something from a store, and that is just not the case.
"We hear it all the time because it's legal right over the state line in Florida," Billy told 1819 News. "So, there is just a lot of discussion about that."
However, he said it is not only illegal but also trading one habit for another.
"It's like drinking Budweiser to stay off Jack Daniels," Billy explained. "It's a controlled substance and it's still illegal."
Others also claim to have become addicted to Kratom and some have won millions of dollars from lawsuits after deaths attributed to Kratom. In Florida, where Brown bought her Kratom, a judge earlier this year awarded the family 39-year-old mother of four Krystal Talavera $11 million in a wrongful death lawsuit.
"This $11-million-dollar judgment should be a wakeup call to the kratom industry about this dangerous and unregulated substance," says Talavera's lawyer Tamara Williams of MCT Law. "There are families across the country who know firsthand that kratom is addictive and can be deadly."
Talavera died of an overdose after years of using Kratom. Her family said Talavera, a nurse, used the product because she thought it was safe and natural. The Palm Beach Coroner's Office ruled the cause of death to be "acute mitragynine intoxication." In her case, the kratom distributor Grow, LLC was found liable.
However, those who support the use of Kratom say these death cases are rare. The CDC reported that in almost all death cases involving Kratom, there are other substances detected in the decedent's system, such as fentanyl, heroin and cocaine.
Brown recently went to Washington to tell her story at a Federal Congressional briefing.
"It's just wrong to be locked up with a trafficking charge with a bond for $1 million, facing ten years to life for trying to stay off drugs," Brown said. "You know, going out there and buying drugs off the street, laced with fentanyl or whatever, and I mean, being in addition for 21 years, you get tired of it.
"Shaina's story is one that unfortunately replicates itself in America today," said Mac Haddow with the American Kratom Association. "And there's no reason for it."
Haddow called for support of the Kratom Consumer Protection Act and said the would allow for safe Kratom products to be used. As of now, the FDA does not approve Kratom for use.
The bill would require the FDA to put together a task force on Kratom but prohibit the FDA from regulating Kratom products in a manner that is more restrictive than other dietary supplements.
If convicted, Brown faces a minimum of three years of mandatory imprisonment and a fine of $50,000. However, since it is a Class A felony, a life sentence is also possible.
Lt. Dereck Lowry with the Escambia County Drug Task Force said because the county is so close to the Florida line where Kratom is legal, they see it all of the time.
"Some are unaware that they are not allowed to bring it back over the state line," Lowry told 1819 News.
Lowry said he has seen the ugly side of Kratom, including aggression, delusions and psychosis.
"People hear that it comes from a plant and it's natural, so they think it's safe, but it's not," he said. "People need to realize there can be a lot of dangerous side effects that they aren't aware of. They should never take anything that a doctor doesn't approve. You don't know what you're getting.
Also dangerous are illicit street drugs, and in many cases, users are unaware of what has been put into those drugs as well. That's why Brown was working to stay sober and avoid going to the streets. The struggle has impacted so many people nationwide that a GoFundMe account quickly raised thousands of dollars for her legal case. That's when her public defender had to step away because she was no longer considered indigent. Brown's new attorney has not returned a call from 1819 News.
Brown is scheduled for an arraignment on March 5, 2024. She also has previous possession of methamphetamine charges in Escambia and Monroe Counties. She is considered innocent until proven guilty.
Escambia County has a drug court and rehabilitation program for those who are struggling with addiction. The program is often used for those who are charged with drug crimes in exchange for lesser charges or sentences.
Lowry said he wants everyone to know that just because something is legal just over the state line doesn't mean you can bring it into Escambia County.
"If you get caught with it and you don't know about it, they're not going to give you a pass because you didn't know about it," he said. "Ignorance is not an excuse."
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