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Kratom with a side of cheesesteak: A sub shop’s vending machine draws customers desperate to kick opioids

June 1, 2017

BESIDES the psychoactive properties of eggplant parm and mid-century nostalgia, there isn’t much about East Coast Super Subs that you would describe as medicinal.

It’s a Wednesday during the late afternoon lull and Keith McNesby, who owns the place, is shuttling back and forth between the deep fryer and the griddle, sweat coating his forehead, grease lodged in the grooves around his fingernails. At this hour, most orders are coming in by phone or online, and he’s making red sauce, he’s assembling subs to go, he’s yelling for two more crates of wings. The only eat-in customer is a heavy-equipment mechanic whose knuckles are covered in blue tattoos.

But the front door keeps swinging open. The new arrivals don’t head to the counter; instead they walk back, toward the dispenser that spits out gumballs and bouncy balls for a quarter a pop. They’re heading for a vending machine that they hope will keep them off opioids.

These customers have been on heroin, hydrocodone, OxyContin — and they swear that the greenish powder dispensed by this machine is what allowed them to escape their addictions. It’s called kratom. It is the pulverized version of a plant from Southeast Asia. And it’s got thousands upon thousands of fans, who credit it with everything from ending their opioid habit to treating their anxiety to controlling their arthritis pain. In a single hour, some five people stop by, and the servers say it gets even busier right around opening and closing.

Now, it’s a young father with a barefoot toddler squirming in his arms. Now, a middle-aged man who just got out of jail, wearing torn, paint-splattered jeans. Now, a bright-eyed kid who looks like a college student.

Each feeds in some cash or dips a credit card — as little as $5 for 10 grams, or as much as $50 for 120 — and down tumbles a bag of kratom as if it were a pack of chips. Most of them will mix a few grams of powder into water — or a smoothie, to mask the bitter taste — and drink it down.

They know it isn’t regulated. Without performing chemical tests, they can never be quite sure that the powder they’re ingesting isn’t contaminated, or even that it’s kratom at all. They can’t be sure, either, that some of the stuff dispensed by the  machine won’t get in the hands of kids looking for a buzz. But they have come to trust the owners of this machine. The company is called Tucson Kratom, and customers swear by it.

Last fall, the Drug Enforcement Administration nearly made kratom as illegal as the federal government can make a substance, on par with heroin and LSD, because of an increase in poison center calls about the substance, as well as worries that it might be addictive. That would have put an end to the kratom trade that goes on in East Coast Super Subs. “If it’s illegal, I want it out in five seconds,” McNesby said.

After a huge public outcry, though, the government reversed course, delaying a decision on whether to outlaw kratom until there was time for a public comment period and a thorough review of the scientific literature.

That brush with illegality turns out to have been good for sellers. “A lot of people found out about kratom because of all the bad publicity. … People were like, ‘Wow, if the government doesn’t want me to have it, I want to try it,’” said Drew Fickett, a mixed martial arts fighter who used to be involved in Tucson Kratom, but has since opened his own storefront under the name Arizona Kratom. He estimates that the proposed ban caused sales to jump by 400 percent, and business is still good.

Fickett also has a vending machine in his own storefront, in case customers want to buy his kratom without having to engage in any human interaction. These two machines, stationed some 10 blocks apart, may well be the only ones in the country.

That may seem like a dubious claim to fame — after all, kratom is hardly as common as coffee or tobacco, but if you’re looking for it, it is easy enough to find. With a few clicks and a credit card number, you can buy kratom online. You can find it in gas stations and head shops and convenience stores and apothecaries selling herbal supplements.

Yet as a substance that’s been banned in some states and that’s still teetering on the edge of federal law, kratom isn’t always sold as if it were a type of sage. It also pops up in unexpected places, where unusual lines of business meet.

In Austin, Texas, you can get it from a boutique that also offers ammunition, water purification systems, whey powder, 18th-century coinage, and a bitcoin ATM. In Dinkytown, Minn., you can get it from a store that specializes in texts and talismans of the occult.

And here in Tucson, there’s the vending machine at East Coast Super Subs, just past the shrine commemorating the Philadelphia Flyers’s Stanley Cup wins in ’74 and ’75. The kratom machine is here through an unlikely symbiosis with a master sandwich-maker. Like a wrasse picking parasites off a shark, it benefits all parties involved: Tucson Kratom gets a local spot in which to sell, while some kratom-seekers also end up staying for lunch.

As server Jonathan Wade puts it, “The first time they come in for the kratom. The second time they look at the menu. The third time they sit down for a sub.”

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